Sub-amendment (d), in subsection (2), at end add—
'(3) A local education authority shall provide nursery education for any child in its area where
New clause 2—Nursery education: Scotland—
Amendment No. 90, in clause 12, page 13, line 23, at end insert—
'(10) The Secretary of State shall not approve any proposal to cease to maintain any nursery school or to make a significant change in the character of a county school by the closure of a nursery class thereat, where such nursery school or class is in existence at the passing of this Act, unless the local education authority proposes also to make satisfactory alternative provisions in nursery schools or classes, as the case may be'.
This new clause and the amendments deal generally with the provision of nursery education in England, Wales and Scotland. They are important. It is because of their importance that the Opposition asked that the timetable motion should be amended to allow further time for discussion—a request to which the Government were happy to accede. It is also the cause of our having an extra two hours to debate the Report stage of the Bill.
Taken as a whole, the effect of the new clause and the amendments is to make clear that local education authorities in England and Wales have a power but not a duty to provide education for those children who are under compulsory school age. At the same time, they provide that where separate nursery schools exist they cannot be closed other than by the use of what was known as section 13 procedure—clause 12 of the Bill—namely, the publication of the intention to close and the opportunity for local people to object.
Finally, since the intention of the main clause is to make clear that there is a power but not a duty on local education authorities to provide education, equally it converts into a power the duty applied in the Act for one local education authority to pay another authority if that other authority is providing education for a child.
That is the purpose of the new clause and the group of amendments. Taken together, these provisions are not intended as, nor should they be taken as, a reduction of interest by the Government in the provision of education for children under 5 years of age. We are still anxious that local education authorities should make as much provision of education as possible, consistent with the available resources.
I should like to explain to the House the reason why the Government consider it necessary to bring forward the new clause and the amendments. The House will remember that during the course of last year the Oxfordshire county council proposed to close all the nursery schools and nursery classes then provided in the county by a later date, and instead to replace that provision with an alternative provision of education for children under 5 years of age. The chief education officer was asked to put forward a scheme for consideration by the council.
The resolution passed by the Oxfordshire county council started a good deal of controversy, particularly on the question whether or not the county council was able to do that, and whether there was a duty or merely a power to provide education for children under 5. The Department of Education and Science had already examined the legal requirements relating to nursery education. It is clear that over the years—certainly until some people had the benefit of hindsight—everyone accepted that the provision for nursery education was a discretionary power for local education authorities. It is equally clear that there is a statutory duty to provide schools for children under 5, but it is also a fact that that statutory duty is extremely unclear.
The Secretary of State said that everyone assumed otherwise. There is one exception—Lord Butler. He said clearly that it was his intention to make it a duty for local education authorities to provide nursery education. He said that those provisions were written into the proposed measure in 1943. It is now 1980–37 years later.
What I said was that until I announced the intention to put forward the new clause, no one—that is why I referred to the benefit of hindsight—had said that there was other than a discretion. I do not thnk that even the noble Lord, the framer of the Act, had publicly announced previously what he said after I published these amendments with regard to the power.
There is a statutory duty to provide education for children under 5 but the statutory duty is extremely unclear I should like to explain to the House what I mean by that. The provisions with regard to the duty on local education authorities to provide education for those of compulsory school age are to be found in section 8 of the Education Act 1944. Those powers provide that
It shall be the duty of every local authority to secure that there shall be available for their area sufficient schools".
Under that provision, sufficient schools have to be made available
for providing primary education, that is to say, full-time education suitable to the requirements of junior pupils".
That duty is clear, and is specifically laid down in terms of the provision to provide sufficient primary schools for the area. That duty is defined by saying that the primary schools shall provide
full-time education suitable to the requirements of junior pupils".
When we look for the definition of a junior pupil, it is apparent that the duty applies to those under 5 as well as to those over 5, since the only definition of a junior pupil is any pupil under the age of 12.
But since there is a duty to provide sufficient schools for children under 5 as well as over 5, and since there is no requirement on parents of children under 5 to send their children to school, it is impossible to say what that level of provision would be held to be.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the same position exists with further education, and that although there is no compulsory requirement to receive further education there is still a duty laid upon local authorities to provide further education? In that sense, the position governing further education and that governing nursery school education are absolutely evenhanded. To cut out the provision for nursery school education would therefore be quite illogical. There is no problem with further education. Why should there be one with nursery education?
I do not accept that argument. I was trying to explain why I believe that it has come about that, although there is a duty of the kind provided in the 1944 Act, no one has ever looked at or debated the matter of nursery education other than in the terms of there being a general power. We are dealing with children below compulsory school age and there is no requirement on the parents to send such children to school. Although there is a general requirement to provide sufficient schools, it is impossible to say what the level of provision should be.
I should like to proceed a little further on this aspect, otherwise I shall be accused of giving way too often and of taking up too much time.
Equally, there is clearly no duty, nor has there ever been a duty—although this has been misunderstood by many people—either to provide nursery schools or education in nursery classes. The only reference to nursery schools or to classes is that which provides that the authorities, in carrying out their duty to provide sufficient schools for those under 5, should have regard—it goes further than that—to the need for securing it by the provision of nursery schools.
The legal position, is that there is a duty to provide sufficient schools to meet the educational demands of the people in the area, but clearly there is no duty to attend the school. There is also no duty as to what form of school it should be, whether a primary or a nursery school or a nursery class. There is a responsibility, in carrying out that duty, merely to have regard to the possibility of nursery schools.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The one exception to my statement—that the whole of the debate has gone on the basis that it was a power and not a duty—was when Somerset announced its intention to do what Oxfordshire announced its intentions to do, namely, to close its schools. It was pointed out to Somerset—the papers have since been looked at—that it was the view of the Department, and has always been the legal view within the Department—although perhaps I should not mention it here—that there is a duty. It was the conveyance of that view to Somerset that made Somerset change its mind about what it intended to do.
The problem is the imprecision of the duty. In many cases it is felt that only the courts can decide. Other than in the case of the warning to Somerset at the earlier stage, there has never been any attempt to enforce the duty upon any local education authority. The whole debate has continued on the general assumption that there is merely a discretionary power.
I do not believe that a lack of clarity surrounding this duty would help anyone other than, perhaps, members of my own profession, who might earn considerable sums in arguing in every case what was meant by the necessary degree of provision in an area where there is no duty on the parent to ensure that the child attends school.
When the Secretary of State quoted the part of the Act relating to the fulfilling of the duties, he did not state that he was quoting from section 8 (2). In that subsection. paragraph (b) relates to where the pupils have not attained the age of 5 years, but paragraph (c) refers to
the need for securing that provision is made for pupils who suffer from any disability of mind or body".
Is the Secretary of State now saying that if a local authority does not wish to pursue the provision of special schools, it should have the option so to do?
Surely he agrees that the wording in the Act is precisely the same for each sort of school.
Yes, but I am saying that there should be a clear duty on local authorities to provide sufficient schools for children of compulsory school age who need special schools, in exactly the same way as there is a duty on local authorities to make provision for primary or secondary schools. The words that the hon. Gentleman read out show that the duty does not necessarily have to be carried out by providing special schools. It can be done by saying that there will be places in the ordinary schools. But in carrying out their duty to those who have illnesses, mental or physical, the authorities are required to have regard to the need for special schools.
I was saying that there has never been an attempt to enforce the provision. I do not believe that it is wise to leave the law unclear on this matter. It is necessary to make it clear, and in the amendments I am attempting to bring the law into line with what it was always thought to be.
Whatever the framers of the 1944 Act intended—I refer now to Lord Butler—there is no doubt that, under pressure of resources those intentions have not been carried out. In fact, the education for those under 5, which existed on a considerable basis at the time of the passing of the 1944 Act, as a result of having been provided during wartime, then began to wither away, and that process continued for the next 20 years. It was not until 1966, following the report of the Plowden committee, that interest in nursery school education appears to have been revised as a matter of public debate.
As the House will know, the Plowden committee recommended that education for children below the age of 5 should be available to all those who wish for it. The committee considered that that meant a provision for 90 per cent. of children of the age of 4, and for 50 per cent. of those of the age of 3 although largely on a part-time basis. 4 pm
It was six years later, in 1972, that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science, first turned that recommendation into a commitment in her White Paper "Education: A Framework for Expansion". It was the commitment of the Government at that time that those targets—if I may put it that way—set by the Plowden committee should be reached by 1982.
Under pressure of shortage of resources, there is no doubt that the target figures for the expansion of the education of under-fives have long since been abandoned. The nursery school building programme for which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister provided when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science was reduced rapidly. It was implemented for two years, it was halved for the year 1976–77, and that half was divided by a further two-thirds for 1977–78. What had been a building provision of £21½ million in 1974 had fallen to a building provision of £2·7 million by 1977–78.
The rate support grant circular put out by the previous Labour Administration for the years 1976–77 and 1977–78 specifically advocated restricting the number of under-fives going to schools as a means to cut expenditure. At present we have about 650 nursery schools, about 4,400 nursery classes, with 19 per cent. of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in those schools or classes, and a further 20 per cent. of under-fives in the ordinary classes of primary schools. The figures and the reasons that I have given are intended not to make a purely party political point but to show that, however anxious both sides of the House may have been to meet the Plowden committee recommendations both have had to accept—when it came to the implementation—that it could be done only within the resources available. I do not believe that there is any point in keeping in existence a shadowy duty that is probably unenforceable and, in present circumstances unattainable.
The Government believe firmly in the value of nursery education for all young children, and that remains our long term aim. It is especially valuable for the handicapped and for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. They must have priority in the provision of resources in the short term. More than 70 per cent. of existing nursery provision is in areas social need. As a result of a provision made over the years through the urban and inner city programmes, priority has always been given by the Department in its nursery building programme, to such areas.
The Government will continue to support nursery education projects in all these programmes. The allocation from the Department's 1980–81 nursery education building programme will be announced shortly.
We have provided within the 1980–81 rate support grant settlement for expenditure on under-fives, including those in primary schools, to remain at roughly the present level. While I cannot anticipate the expenditure White Paper for future years, I am confident that we shall be able to maintain a substantial provision for the under-fives, especially if local authorities can find ways of reducing the individual cost of educating a child.
That could be done. The House knows that, as a result of the drop in the number of children in primary schools, there is substantial vacant capacity or over-capacity in such schools. If local authorities could make use of those classrooms, released as a result of falling primary school rolls, it would be a means of providing for the education of the under-fives that could be achieved without the need for expensive adaptations. It has been put to me that the Department's regulations on the standards for school premises inhibit that, and I am asking my Department to consider whether they are too tough on nursery education premises.
Is not the probability of the fulfilment of that desirable end—of taking up places made vacant by the falling number of primary school rolls—diminished significantly by the removal of any form of direct responsibility which the right hon. and learned Gentleman is proposing in the new clause?
Another matter should be taken into account. There is a significant difference between a position in which the objectives of nursery place provision are not met because of shortages of resources—whether under a Conservative or a Labour Government—and a position in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman is actively removing any obligation being imposed upon local education authorities to make such provision. Does not the latter position, which he is now introducing, change the whole nature of the Government's attitude towards the provision of nursery places?
I do not accept that. The provision that I have described, and the build-up that has taken place, has been at a period when the local education authorities thought that there was no statutory duty on them. It has not been suggested that they have been acting in the belief that there was a statutory duty rather than discretionary powers. We have found that a considerable number of local authorities have already put in bids against the nursery building programme for next year.
As hon. Members will know, I was asked by the Association of County Councils to consider the introduction of charges for nursery education, and my Department has examined carefully the implications of such a measure. While it is possibly true, as some argue, that a modest charge for nursery education could in some cases help to tip the scales against reducing existing provision, I do not believe that it would lead to the opening of new classes or schools or wider provision.
Clearly any scheme for charging for nursery education would have to exempt those in receipt of supplementary benefit and family income supplement. Any State scheme for the provision of education for under-fives would have to be subsidised and any extension of that provision, even with the right to charge, would lead inevitably to increased expenditure.
As I have said, 70 per cent. of the existing nursery provision is made in areas of special social need. I believe that any system of charging—limited as it would have to be in practice to nursery schools and classes rather than reception classes in primary schools—would bring in little income. It would risk depriving of nursery education children who are in the greatest need of its benefits. I have concluded, therefore, that in the present circumstances, it would not be right to introduce charging for nursery education.
The amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) is otiose because under section 61 of the 1944 Act it is clear that no charging could be made unless I provide specifically for it in the Bill.
That is exactly what I am saying. Section 61 does not allow charging for State education.
I do not believe that changing the duty to provide education for the under-fives to a power will in itself cause any reduction in the provision of nursery education. If the resources cannot be made available, the existence of a statutory power will not, as I have attempted to show, do anything to increase that provision. Resources, and not whether it is a power or a duty, are the key.
It is certainly not my intention that this clause should be seen as an invitation to local authorities to abandon nursery education. The bids that we have received suggest that a substantial number of local authorities are anxious not only to maintain existing provision but to expand it, in spite of the present pressures on local authority finances.
I am, however, aware that one or two authorities are considering the closure of some or all of their nursery provision. While that is a course of action that would obviously be regretted, locally elected councillors must decide for themselves on these matters.
That would have been legal. I am, however, proposing to place one additional safeguard on such action. I propose to bring the closure of nursery schools within the scope of clause 12, which has not applied to nursery schools in the past. This amendment is an essential part of my overall proposals on nursery education.
The amendment to clause 12 is designed to ensure that, if a local education authority proposes to cease to maintain a nursery school, it shall be required, in precisely the same way as in the case of a primary or secondary school, to publish its proposal, giving two months for objections to be submitted. In fact, the full provisions of clause 12 will apply, and, unless there are no statutory objec- tions, the decision to approve or reject the proposal will be taken by the Secretary of State as in the normal way.
I apologise for taking some time in explaining the effect of the new clauses, but I commend them and the amendments to the House.
The Secretary of State rightly said that this was an important new clause. We think that it is one of the most important amendments that has been tabled, and we are disturbed that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has seen fit to seek to write in such an important new clause at this stage in our proceedings. Indeed, I suggest that it would have been more appropriate had the Secretary of State decided to introduce a completely separate Bill on this specific point, because the House does not have sufficient time to discuss this matter fully before the Bill makes further progress.
The new clause makes a fundamental change to the Education Act 1944. The Secretary of State tried to play down that change, and tried to argue that the new clause simply seeks to clarify the position. We do not think that that is the case. We believe that the new clause will have dramatic effects which the Secretary of State has refused to admit.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman also referred to the decision of Oxfordshire county council. Since this issue was raised, Oxfordshire county council has got a good deal of the blame for the fact that the Government have been considering a change in the law with regard to this clause. Oxfordshire decided that it would try to close its 12 nursery schools and 16 nursery classes, thus depriving 1,500 children of the right to nursery education. We must remember why Oxfordshire felt it necessary to embark on that policy in the first place. It was not because people in Oxfordshire suddenly decided that nursery education was a bad thing. It was because the Secretary of State and his colleagues in the Cabinet decided that local authorities had to make substantial cuts in their expenditure. The pressure for this change came not simply from the county councils but from the Government themselves, and the Government should take responsibility for the changes that are now being introduced.
The Secretary of State said a great deal about the need for clarifying the 1944 Act. Indeed, most of his speech concentrated on that point. If we look at what has been said over the last few weeks, we find that everyone agrees on what the 1944 Act meant. The legal advisers at the Department of Education and Science agreed. The Attorney-General agreed and Lord Butler agreed. Everyone is now convinced that the 1944 Act placed a duty on local education authorities to provide nursery education.
The fact that many local authorities failed to provide those facilities, because of lack of resources or for whatever reason, does not alter the meaning of the law. It seems that the law was quite clear. It is important to realise that the new clause does not clarify the law but changes it. That is what the Secretary of State has chosen to do.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman made light of the effects of this change. The first effect is that councils such as Oxfordshire county council will try to go ahead with their plans. Indeed, many others may try to follow them. They may attempt either to close all their nursery schools and classes or to reduce provision dramatically. From now on, there will be nothing in law to stop them doing so. The Secretary of State reminded us of his other amendments to the Bill which bring nursery provision within the scope of section 13 of the 1944 Act. I think he will agree that that is a modified section 13, given the other changes that he is proposing in the Bill.
The Secretary of State expects to be reassured by this proposal and by his other amendments, but I do not believe that they are reassuring at all. First, it has never been thought necessary to have a procedure for closing nursery schools, because it has never been previously considered possible that local authorities would embark upon the wholesale closure of such schools. It is only because local authorities are now proposing to do so that the new power is needed by the Secretary of State.
The other more important reason why we cannot get any reassurance from the Secretary of State's other amendments is that, to have any effect, section 13 would have to be used effectively by him. The Secretary of State will have to be prepared to say to Oxfordshire county council "No, you cannot close your nursery schools or nursery classes". Neither this afternoon nor on any other occasion has the right hon. and learned Gentleman said whether he intends to allow local authorities to cut back their provision.
My hon. Friend has just said that the Secretary of State had to make up his mind about whether he would give permission for the closure of nursery schools or classes. I listened fairly carefully, and I do not think that the Secretary of State actually said that in order to close a nursery class one needed to go through this procedure. That is one of the most worrying and disturbing aspects of this matter, because most of the expansion of nursery education over recent years has been in the provision of classes. I think that that leaves a major loophole, because classes can be dispensed with without any safeguard whatever. I hope that my hon. Friend will press that point further.
My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and the Secretary of State is confirming that what he has said is correct. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman was so keen to clarify the law on this issue, I am surprised that he did not refer to the situation in nursery classes, because they will almost be left in limbo between the nursery schools and the infants' schools of which they are part.
I was careful to say that the provision related only to nursery schools. I considered the question of nursery classes. The nursery class is merely another class within the primary school system, in most cases. Frankly, I do not think that section 13 is the appropriate procedure.
Under the provision the local authorities would be free to close nursery classes if they wished.
Had I not brought in these powers, under the existing 1944 Act there was no reason to prevent Oxfordshire from closing its existing nursery schools without coming to me. Therefore, to suggest that Oxfordshire could not have done it previously but that it now can is quite wrong.
What the Secretary of State said does not comply with what the Attorney-General said about the Oxfordshire position. Even so, that was not the point that I put to him. He says now that he has new powers under section 13 to prevent the closure of nursery schools. I asked the Minister whether he was willing to give an assurance that he would not approve the wholesale break-up of nursery education in any area. Will the Minister say "No, you cannot abandon nursery education", or will he stand by what he said about the situation in Somerset? Somerset asked whether it could close its remaining schools. The Minister was reported as saying that, although he would regret a decision by the LEA to close the schools, he would not invoke his statutory powers to enforce his view. That is the report of the situation that arose when Somerset sought advice from the Department. Will the Minister stand by his previous statement, or will he give us an assurance that he will not allow any authority completely to abandon nursery education in its area? That is an important point. If the Minister will not use his new powers under section 13, why does he want them?
As the hon. Lady will realise, I cannot give an assurance in the terms that she requests. I can give the assurance that, in normal section 13 procedure, every individual case for a closure must be publicised. There will be an opportunity for people to object. The case must be considered on its merits.
But at the end of the day the Secretary of State must make a decision whether to allow a local authority to close its nursery schools. The House would have been reassured if he had said that in general he was against local authorities closing nursery schools. He has not gone as far as that. We should welcome information about the criteria that the Secretary of State would use when he makes these decisions. Indeed, we should welcome more information about the Minister's general attitude towards nursery education. He made some bland statements this afternoon about being in favour of it. However, there is now doubt about how enthusiastic the Government are about nursery education.
The Secretary of State referred to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the contribution that she made to the improvement of nursery education. We heard a great deal about the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for nursery education, not only in the White Paper, to which the Minister referred, but in parliamentary debates and statements such as this:
an historic step forward; giving new opportunities to parents.
A great deal of elaborate language was used at that time by his right hon. Friend, but all that bold talk led to very little.
We are now concerned about what is happening to Conservative policy on nursery education. We have been considering some of the statements made over the past few years in Conservative Party manifestos. There has been a great deal of change of emphasis and a reduction of keenness on nursery education. This is alarming. In February 1974 the Conservative Party made a direct commitment:
We shall…extend free nursery schooling throughout the country.
That was bold and direct. By October 1974 the Conservative Party had slightly modified that commitment. Instead of promising to provide such education, it recognised the need for it. By the time that it came to the writing of "The Right Approach", the Conservative Party thought that there should be special assistance for deprived children. By the time of the 1979 manifesto there was little talk of nursery education—simply the note that every child should have the chance to progress. That is where the Secretary of State now leaves the situation.
From 1974 until 1979 the then Labour Government reduced their provision for nursery education from £21½ million a year to £2·7 million a year, and specifically advised local authorities, as a way of reducing expenditure, to reduce the numbers of under-fives they took into their schools.
We are greatly touched by the Secretary of State's deep concern. However, the majority of local authorities that refused to take up their nursery allocations were Conservative controlled and, by and large, Labour local authorities have a far better record on nursery expenditure than do Tory local authorities.
That is a fact. Indeed, some Labour local authorities tried to take up their allocations in their place. That is why so many Labour authorities were able to do something in terms of expanding nursery education.
We were talking about the progress, or lack of it, of Conservative philosophy on nursery education. I think that last October the Secretary of State, in reply to a question, stated that he hoped to be able, over the coming year, to increase the number of nursery places available in this country. We were slightly surprised because the Secretary of State said that he would increase the number of nursery places although reducing expenditure on nursery education. We are now waiting for the Secretary of State to tell us that abolishing a legal obligation to provide nursery education will also result in more places.
If the Secretary of State were concerned about nursery education he would not be introducing this new clause at this stage. He said that he was in favour of nursery education but said little about the dangers of the clause. He said little about the damage that would be done if the clause were passed and local authorities took advantage of it.
Does the Secretary of State realise the hardship that would be caused by a reduction in nursery education? Does he believe in the educational and social value of nursery education? Does he agree it is important that children from deprived backgrounds can take advantage of this better start in education? If he does, he cannot go ahead with the clause or allow local authorities to close their nursery schools.
The clause has been introduced to allow local education authorities to save money, but this is a false economy. Unless children get a good start in life more problems will be created both inside and outside the education service. We are concerned about what will happen in practical terms if local authorities take advantage of the clause. Some local authorities will close nursery schools. What will happen then to the buildings and the outstanding loans on them? Will the buildings be hired out to groups who want to run private nurseries? The demand will still exist. If that happens, and if fees of £90 or £100 a term are charged, many children needing nursery education will be deprived of it and there will be hardship.
There is no alternative. Perhaps by the time the Bill comes back from another place the Minister will have modified it further by introducing an assisted places scheme to allow deprived children to attend nursery schools.
The clause is extremely important. It could lead to the break-up of nursery education, and it will certainly cause a great deal of hardship to many children and their parents. Even if the Secretary of State were to accept all the Opposition amendments to the clause, we would still think that it was inadequate and should be withdrawn.
We have tabled amendment (b) because we believe that nursery education should be available as of right to every 4-year-old. We know that there are problems in achieving that target, but, unless the target is written into the legislation and unless the Secretary of State is keen to see that it is achieved, there will be little pressure by central Government on local authorities to achieve it. The Secretary of State has a responsibility to encourage local authorities to provide more nursery education. That means taking legal steps to ensure that they do, as well as providing resources.
The Secretary of State referred to amendment (a). The Opposition welcome the Minister's statement that he is unwilling to introduce charges for nursery education and will not do so, but the reason he gave is the wrong reason. He said that it would not raise much money anyway. We think that charges are wrong in principle and that the Minister should have said so.
Amendment (d) provides for children who need to be compensated because they are deprived of certain advantages. We think that nursery education should be provided as of right for children whose families are in receipt of family income supplement or supplementary benefit or who are in a one-parent family. In Committee the Minister acknowledged that some children are in special need of nursery education. He therefore has a responsibility to ensure that that commitment is carried out by local authorities and should not just sit back and hope that it all works out well in the end.
Amendment No. 90 provides that nursery schools in existence at present should not be closed. If the Minister is confident, as he says, that the clause will not lead to the early closure of nursery schools, I do not understand why he cannot accept the amendment. It puts into the Bill only what the Minister has implied. If existing nursery schools are to be protected, the Minister should be willing to accept the amendment.
We hope that the Minister will accept our amendments but, even if he accepts them all, the clause will still be wrong. The clause attacks the most vulnerable children, the under-fives. It attacks the children who most need help. It is a false economy because nursery education is an important investment in the future.
I hope that the Minister will think again about the clause and be quick to come to the House and say that he has changed his mind, and instead of removing the duty of local authorities to provide nursery education will reinforce that duty. If clarification of the 1944 Act is necessary, there should be a movement in the other direction, not in the direction that will result in the break-up of nursery education.
After listening to the legal arguments about the precise obligations of local education authorities under section 8(2) of the Education Act 1944 and reading the articles written by the perceptive and intelligent correspondent of The Times Educational Supplementon this question, I am drawn irresistibly to the conclusion that the whole argument would have appealed enormously to Mr. Justice Cocklecarrot. In due course it may warm up the rhetoric of the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) but, with great respect as the lawyers say, I do not think it lit much of a fire under the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor), except for the good joke about the assisted places scheme.
I think it was Mr. Dooley who said that what is a stone wall for a layman is usually a triumphal arch for a lawyer. Those of us who are interested in the greater provision of nursery education must be concerned principally with how we get over the stone wall. Before attempting to effect that scramble I hope I shall be excused for trying briefly, and without the advantage of a legal education, to effect a passage through the triumphal arch.
I was surprised by the legal advice given by the Department of Education and Science and I would be surprised if the Department were not equally surprised. If it means anything, it means that every local education authority in the country has been in breach of its statutory obligations for the past 36 years.
If we go back to the tablets of stone—the 1944 Act—we see the first distinction between nursery, primary and secondary schools in the difference between the obligation upon parents of children over 5 to send their children to school and the lack of that obligation on parents of children under 5. If we go on to the second distinction—I imagine it was meant as such by the draftsmen of the Act—and look at section 8(1) we see that local education authorities are given a duty to provide secondary schools and primary schools. Subsection (2) says:
In fulfilling their duties…local education authorities shall, in particular, have regard to the need for securing that provision is made for…nursery schools".
What exactly having "regard to the need" actually means is a question that suggests that we are back in Beachcomber country.
If we look at the Committee stage of the 1944 Act we do not get much more wisdom on the subject. An amendment to clause 8 was moved which sought to shift nursery schools from subsection (2)
to subsection (1). In resisting the amendment the then Parliamentary Secretary at the Board of Education said:
I think there is no doubt, after the former discussion, that the provision of nursery schools is a part of primary education. The Board are fully seized of the desire of the country that it should be expanded, but it does not appear that any substantial gain is made bringing it into 8(1)(a) and leaving it out of 8(2)(b)."—[Official Report, 15 February 1944; Vol. 397, c. 98.]
As the last 36 years have shown, how wrong he turned out to be!
The reason why the Parliamentary Secretary resisted that amendment from the then hon. Member for Kilmarnock, Mr. Kenneth Lindsay, was that the Board felt—a point that is made in Lord Butler's memoirs to which I shall return with enthusiasm later—that, however much nursery education was desirable, it did not think that it was absolutely essential. In those heady days of extremely valuable and constructive consensus politics at the end of the war—
During the war, that is right. In the era of the Post-War Problems Committee it was generally felt that all good men and true would be in favour of creating Utopia as soon as the peace that was just round the corner came along. However, there were clearly some bits of Utopia that were thought to be more important and necessary than others.
I turn now to the evidence of Lord Butler, that political genius and architect of the 1944 Act. He said recently—this is borne out by his speech on Second Reading of the Bill in 1944—that it was always the intention to impose a duty on local education authorities to provide nursery schools. But that was not how he put it in his memoirs which he wrote 27 conceivably law-breaking years later. In his memoirs, talking about his Second Reading speech, the noble Lord mentions the statutory duties imposed on local education authorities and goes on:
For children under the age of five, the aim"—
note the use of the word "aim"—
was a sufficient supply of nursery schools".
He goes on later in that chapter to set out the limited number of failures of the 1944 Act and he includes among them
the failure to achieve that aim. For those of us who believe in the efficacy of nursery schools it seems, unfortunately, that the provision of nursery places for as many children as want them did not come within what Lord Butler would have called the art of the possible.
After the 1944 Act, distinction was continually drawn between mandatory and permissive powers. As early as 1946 the Fabian Society—I dare say that it sometimes gets things right—was urging the then Labour Government to make the section 8 provisions mandatory rather than permissive. That distinction between mandatory and permissive has been drawn in various books and textbooks ever since. For example, that distinction is drawn in the excellent book on nursery schools by Tessa Blackstone. Wherever Tessa Blackstone's political sympathies lie, they are not, on the whole, with the Conservatives.
In 1951 four county councils decided that they would do away with nursery schools. Presumably they thought that the powers under the 1944 Act were permissive. We then come to the interesting case of the intervention of Lord Hailsham in the affairs of Somerset in 1957. Until this afternoon we thought that that would not be able to shed much light on the present position, as we were led to believe—again by that perceptive correspondent of The Times Educational Supplement—that the Department had lost the directive. We now understand that the dispute about whether Lord Hailsham was acting within the powers under section 68 of the Act on the ground that the local authority was behaving unreasonably or under section 99 on the ground that it was in breach of its statutory duty has been resolved, because he issued his directive under section 99.
If that was so, it is all the more surprising that three years later in 1960 the Ministry of Education issued a circular telling local authorities not to provide any more nursery places. It is quite extraordinary that at that time the Ministry did not seem to think that failure to provide nursery places was the same as a failure to comply with the law.
That is how things remained until, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said, the Plowden committee reported and until the White Paper of 1972, the excellent objectives of which, were, alas, scuppered by the failures of the economy.
To summarise the position since 1944, at the end of the war, partly as a result of the experience of evacuation and the fact that many people had witnessed, for the first time, social and educational deprivation and under-privilege among too many children in this county, nursery education was regarded, in the words of "1066 and All That", as a good thing. But because in the 1940s there was a lack of trained teachers, a high birth rate and economic problems, because in the 1950s other educational priorities such as the reduction of class sizes, were established, and because of economic failure in the 1960s and 1970s, we never managed to turn that "very good thing," as some of us would argue, into nursery places for all those who wanted them.
I do not agree with the hon. Member for Bolton, West. The new clause does clarify the position, though I accept that the present position is pretty miserable and both parties are responsible for it. The amendment to clause 12 is conceivably a small mercy for which we should be proportionately grateful. But what do we do now about the admirable objective of Lord Butler?
I have been seeking to argue for more than long enough that at best the situation since 1944 has been exceptionally confused. Since 1944 there has not been a statutory obligation on local education authorities under section 8.
I began by saying that I was extremely surprised by the legal advice that the Department seems to have been given and that it is now applying. The clause clarifies a rather sad position for all who believe in greater nursery provision.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be agreeing that, for example, Oxfordshire county council was not acting illegally when it chose in November to adopt a policy that would have meant the ending of nursery education in that county. If the county council was not acting illegally under the law as it was then understood, why was it necessary even to introduce what the hon. Gentleman calls clarification, let alone the much more accurate term that has been used by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West—namely, changing the law?
The hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically obtuse. I have already said that if Oxfordshire county council was breaking the law at least four county councils were doing so in 1951. Probably every local authority has broken it since 1944. According to the hon. Gentleman's interpretation, the Department broke the law in 1960 in issuing its circular. The hon. Gentleman should make the intellectual effort to grasp that.
Will the hon. Gentleman tender the same advice, possibly with a little less condescension, to his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General? On this issue the right hon. and learned Gentleman appears to have the same opinion as myself and almost everyone else.
I am sorry to have stung the hon. Gentleman. He has been extremely kind and courteous to me in the past. I do not want to annoy him. He is the last person in the House to whom I would condescend.
I began by using the most legalistic language. I dotted my speech with "great respects". I said that I did not go along entirely with the Attorney-General's advice. I do not want to put it any stronger than that. If the 1944 Act is as the hon. Gentleman claims, every local authority throughout the country has been breaking it for the past 36 years.
I return to the objective of greater under-fives provision. I believe in its importance in educational and social terms. I have seen how much my own children have gained from it. It is a considerable pity—indeed, it is a great deal more than that—that more children have not had the benefit of nursery education.
Nursery provision in my constituency is woefully bad. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, with some encouragement from my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, will help to put that right by giving early approval to the application under urban aid for another nursery class at Twerton. I am glad to see that I have the support of my right hon. and learned Friend.
I do not wish to blame anyone in particular for the position in my constituency or generally throughout the country. That would be much too partisan an approach. Until those who believe in the importance of nursery education convince the rest of society that it should receive priority, until we convince a Government that nursery education should be an integral part of family policy, until we can convince a Government that it is necessary to have a family policy at all, and until we provide the resources to pay for it, the situation will not change. The present situation will remain irrespective of whichever party is on the Government side of the House. Until that new age dawns, and until we are able to change attitudes towards nursery education, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend and his Department will undertake certain initiatives.
In addition to putting in a good word for the Twerton nursery class, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will try to persuade his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services of the need to try to pull together all the strands of provision for the under-fives. It is little short of a scandal that despite the report of a few years ago of the "Think Tank" on a joint approach to social policy, and despite the arrival and all too unfortunate departure of that excellent creation of the late Richard Cross-man, the co-ordinating unit for the social services in the Cabinet Office, we seldom take a broader view of education and social policy. We tend still to consider policy in departmentalised blocks. We seem never to recognise how one policy affects another and how one policy can support another.
Secondly, I should like to see the Department of Education and Science encouraging local education authorities—I was glad to hear my right hon. and learned Friend speak about this—to take advantage of empty classrooms as a consequence of falling school rolls. I should like to see the Department encouraging LEAs to use to the best advantage all the resources that they now have at their disposal. There is a great deal of untapped voluntary effort. There is an excellent pre-school play group movement. As I have said, there are empty classrooms and nursery teachers and nursery classes.
At the risk of being a shade controversial, and at the risk of seeming too much of an intellectual protege of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen), there is a resource that I should like to see the Government tapping in a more open-minded manner. In the next two days I should prefer to be supporting the Government in introducing a policy to give local authorities the authority to charge for nursery school provision rather than for transport, provided that there is adequate free provision for those in need.
In the continuing absence—I imagine that it will be a permanent absence—of the money-bearing trees of which the hon. Member for Bedwellty dreams, we should be trying during a difficult economic period to do everything that we can to use all the resources available to make better provision for the under-fives.
I did not have the advantage of sitting opposite the hon. Member for Bedwellty while the Bill was being discussed in Committee. I understand that he spent much of the time talking about other matters. As I understand it, the assisted places scheme, which will begin next year, will start with provision of £5 million or £6 million and not £54 million. My right hon. and learned Friend has made it clear that the £54 million will be additional moneys.
Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that 131 Labour Members went to grammar schools and 26 to public schools? That represents more than 60 per cent. of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Will he reflect upon the somewhat hypocritical motives of those who, having had the advantage of that type of education, now seek to prevent others from taking advantage of it?
I take my hon. Friend's point. I am sure that he will develop it in his usual style and brio in the months and years ahead, the electors of Preston being sensible enough to return him to this place.
I hope that in making use of all the available resources we shall live up to the spirit of section 8(1) and (2) of the Education Act 1944, whatever the letters of those subsections say or do not say.
In speaking to this group of amendments, I look to see if there is any good news. There is not much good news though the Opposition should welcome the Minister's firm statement that there will be no charge for nursery education. When I tabled the amendment referred to by the Minister we had considerable fears that he was under some pressure to introduce charges for nursery education.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) has shown us that that pressure still exists within the Conservative Party and I welcome the Minister's statement. I now accept that the amendment is not necessary in the Bill but it was necessary to get it on the Amendment Paper in order that we might get the statement that the Minister is totally against charges.
I wish that the Minister had been against them in principle as well as in practice. I got the impression from his speech that he was against charges because of practical difficulties and because they would not raise much money, rather than on the principle that there should be free education. I suppose we should also welcome the fact that the Minister is still indicating that nursery education should be expanded. That ideal was watered down in the Conservative manifesto.
It is not much use Ministers continuing to say that they believe in nursery education unless they can offer concrete evidence of proposals to move in that direction. There was no such proposal in the Minister's speech. Will it be the grandchildren, or the great grandchildren of the children who are now being refused nursery education who will eventually find universal provision of nursery places? It is time the Government indicated when we might move towards that goal. There are arguments about how revenues from North Sea oil should be used. If we were to invest some of it during the 1980s in nursery education we would see a return on that investment long after the oil revenues have vanished.
One of the disturbing facets of the Minister's speech was the news that 75 per cent. only of socially disadvantaged children get the chance to go to nursery school. We should at least guarantee a place for those children. We should remember that though many nursery schools are in deprived areas there is an increase in the number of socially disadvantaged people living in relatively affluent areas. We should make sure that there is provision for those people as well as for those in socially disadvantaged areas. The Minister should have accepted sub-amendment (d) which urges that some groups of children should be guaranteed nursery education.
On the wider issues, the Tory Party has made a great deal of our education standards particularly in our primary schools. The first requirement for children entering a primary school is that they should have the skills necessary to take advantage of the education offered. Large numbers of children start school without having a command of spoken English. Unless they have that command, it is almost impossible to teach them to read. I have on occasion come across children who could only with great difficulty master the art of turning the squiggles on the paper into sounds but who, having pronounced the sounds, had no clue as to what the words meant. The major task of nursery education is to ensure that by the time a child reaches the age of 5 he should have a reasonable command of the English language so that when he attempts to master the art of reading he can understand the meaning of words. Children should not have to face the double task of turning symbols into sounds as well as having to find meanings for the sounds themselves.
If we wish to develop numeracy, a basic early understanding through play of shapes, sizes and spatial relationships is the key to success. Nursery education can play a major role in that context.
We should look carefully at the problem of falling rolls. When the Labour Party was in government, it claimed that we were doing well for nursery education because a bigger percentage of children in that age group was getting into nursery schools. The reality was that a larger percentage was getting in because of falling numbers. We were not providing many extra places.
The Minister suggested that in looking at our standards we ought to see whether nursery classes could be financed on the cheap. I hope that the Minister will expand later on standards as they affect classroom space and other provisions in nursery schools because I found that a disturbing aspect of his speech.
I agree that provision need not be palatial but it seems a dangerous concept that children in nursery schools could make do with lower standards than in other sectors of education. I believe that people who are disturbed at existing low standards would want to see them improved. The Government should have been able to accept amendment (b) in the light of the suggestion that statutory provision should be made for four-year-olds and above. That is a modest suggestion.
On the question of closures it seemed that the Minister was being helpful when he said that he would make it difficult for local authorities to close nursery schools. Can he give us some assurances on that because there are children—not many—who are fortunate enough to get into nursery schools at the age of 3 or just over? If a local authority proposes to close nursery schools, will the children already there be guaranteed continued nursery education until they move into the infants department? Or will the Minister allow a local authority to permit children to have one year of nursery education and then, because of closure, have to miss a year before they go into the infants department? The Minister should make clear to any local authority proposing closures that they must be phased in order to ensure that children are not suddenly deprived of nursery education.
I was disturbed to realise that the Minister did not intend to compel the local authorities to establish a procedure for the reduction of nursery classes. The greatest expansion in recent years has taken place in that area. If the Minister has any belief in nursery education he should insist that local authorities at least inform him of their plans so that he may express a view on the closing down of nursery classes as opposed to nursery school. The Minister must also take into account the implications for continuity. Though I believe there are now fewer nursery classes admitting three-year-old children, most of them tend to take children at 4 years of age. I hope that there will be a categoric guarantee from the Minister that no child who started at a nursery class would be made to spend a year or six months at home because there was no further nursery provision.
It is a sad day when a Government allow or encourage local authorities to reduce their commitment to nursery education. We should be firmly committed to nursery education and be making the resources available for it. I hope that my hon. Friends will support amendments (d) and (b). Even if we succeed on those amandments I hope that we will still be able to throw out the whole of the new clause.
I note that new clause 1(1) says quite clearly that local authorities
shall have power to establish nursery schools, to maintain such schools established by them or a former authority".
In bringing this point before the House I note that the Secretary of State may support closures where they are requested or where there is pressure for them. I have confidence in the compassionate attitude of my right hon. and learned Friend in these matters.
Until we heard what the Department of Education and Science said recently nursery education has always been regarded as being voluntarily provided. Pressure has been built up through the publication of league tables setting out what various local authorities provide. We have seen such leagues in Hansard, in The Times Educational Supplement and so on. They have been of valuable assistance in providing pressure to build up the nursery provision that we now have.
There has been other pressure—particularly from parents. Additionally, nobody in education would not acknowledge the pressure that has been brought by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to improve primary and nursery education in this country. Such voluntary pressure should not be regarded as insignificant or ignored as lightweight. It has brought about the present position in nursery education, which is not marvellous, but it has improved in many cases.
I believe that the new clauses will be interpreted sensibly by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, and I am sure that he will do all that he can to preach the deep value of nursery education. The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) said that Conservatives have no philosophy on or genuine commitment to nursery education. I am sure she knows that that is not so and that we have a deep commitment to the nursery stage. I spent all my working life in education until I came to this place in May of last year, and I believe that nursery education is where it all begins.
This is a time when many would not be prepared to see more spent on nursery education. I believe that such people are blinkered and that we must persuade society to pay the necessary taxes for the sort of provision that we want. There is no substitute for the role of the mother with children from the ages of 1 to 5. That fact has not been mentioned so far in the debate and I believe that it should be.
However, the role of the mother should not detract from the value of nursery education. The social- ising of children in nursery schools is of great value. They learn to interact with one another and with adults. Often for the first time, those children who live in deprived and miserable backgrounds have the opportunity to see a bright environment for a few hours a day. I was impressed by the compassionate way in which my right hon. and learned Friend brought out such points.
Nursery schools provide accommodation for children of single parents. They provide help for children both of whose parents are working. Expert teachers are on hand to help children to begin to stand on their ownfeet—that is so much of what life is about. Children start to plug into the learning process through the high pupil-teacher ratio in nursery schools of about 1:6. The ratio is that high because it must be at that level, and that is one reason why nursery education is so expensive. I believe that the new clauses do nothing to prevent the process from continuing.
Playgroups have been referred to in the debate. In playgroups there is a pupil-staff ratio of about 1:30, but they seek to carry out more of a child minding process, valuable though that is. That distinction needs to be made. We are living in an age of tight budgets, particularly in some areas. That means that cuts have been necessary in education. It would be wrong to cut the provision for children of statutory age to provide for those of nursery age, highly desirable though that is. It would be robbing Peter to pay Paul, and we must avoid that at all costs. It is not that early education is not important, but education at the statutory age is absolutely crucial.
I am keen on the provision of day nurseries. That matter comes up elsewhere in the Bill. They provide great opportunity for deprived children. The vital thing about nursery education is that we should not look on it as providing for children who are well provided for in other ways. Local authorities should be subjected to voluntary pressure to provide for the disabled and deprived in their community.
I place particular priority on education for children of statutory age. More funds should be available for teachers, buildings, recreational facilities teaching materials and so on. However, resources permitting, I should like to see as much provision as possible for day nurseries and nursery schools catering for all children, particularly the less fortunate.
I should like now to make one or two educational observations as an educationalist, to illustrate why I believe that nursery education is desirable. Nursery education provides an environment in which small children can benefit from relationships with adults outside the home. Partly, it is a social process, but it is also substantially an educational process. Small children learn to relate to adults within the home, but it is another matter to take them outside their home and secure environment and get them to relate to other children and adults. It is important for them to learn that, in order to make a smooth transition into primary school. Nursery schools provide freedom of movement for children in, for example, small flats. Nothing is more restrictive for a child's mental intellectual and social development than to be in a confined space and unimaginative surroundings. Nursery schools provide space and imaginative and creative surroundings in which children can benefit from the freedom of movement that we all need at an early age.
The new clause facilitates that aspect of nursery education. The essential development of children comes through playing with sand, clay, and so-on. It is crucial for children to learn to create shapes and move objects and blocks, clay and putty. In nursery education children are in a benevolently supervised environment, with a high pupil-teacher ratio, and they are helped to play creatively.
In a strictly educational sense, there are opportunities for mothers to learn through the development of their children. That is important, and it will be facilitated by the new clause. Through the guidance of nursery schools, teachers and head teachers, they can learn a great deal about how to bring up children. Often it is here that parents will begin to see the needs of their children for the first time. The transition to primary school—or to the first school if there is a three tier system—is greatly assisted by nursery education.
I am therefore at one with the Secretary of State. This is a crucial area. We are strong supporters of nursery education. It is of crucial importance to the early, and therefore later, development of the child. The more the better. Nursery education must result from the voluntary pressure of parents. We can and must bring pressure to bear on local education authorities to provide such facilities. However, nursery education will not die as a result of the new clause. Instead, we shall rely more than ever on parents, teachers, Members of Parliament, councillors and all those concerned with the welfare of small children. We must remember that small children grow into bigger children and citizens. That is important for the future of this country. If we all play our role, we shall go forward with fresh vision.
I agree with some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). However, I wish that he had reached the correct conclusion. If he had been true to the earlier part of his speech, where he rightly placed great importance on the provision of nursery education, he should have agreed to come into the Lobby with us. He should vote against the new clause. The hon. Gentleman is one of the few Conservative Members to have spent most of his working life at the chalk face of education. I hope that he will tell the Secretary of State where to get off and that he will not become a "Yes-man" for this reactionary Tory Government.
These two new clauses are a measure of the Government's contempt for the education of young children. They have introduced these clauses at a late stage. That is nothing but a measure of their contempt for democratic debate and parliamentary scrutiny. They are trying to get this rotten legislation on to the statute book within a minimum period of time. That will allow only a minimum amount of examination by hon. Members, and it will allow virtually no examination and scrutiny by members of the public. Perhaps it was the Secretary of State's deliberate strategy to wait until the final kick of the ball before coming out with these amendments, in order to minimise our opportunity to attack him. It will minimise also the opportunities of those outside to provide constructive alternatives to such reactionary proposals. If I am disappointed with the Secretary of State for Education and Science, I am more than disappointed with the Secretary of State for Scotland. It is interesting that not one of his fellow Ministers has had the courage to put his name to new clause 2.
I am not a lawyer or a legal expert. However, I took the trouble to read the Act covering England and Wales as well as the 1962 Act covering Scotland. The Scottish Act is probably even stronger in its wording. It appears to me that there is an obligation on local education authorities in Scotland, as well as on those in England and Wales, to provide nursery education.
That is not what I said. Did the hon. Gentleman believe, in 1970, that there was a statutory duty to provide nursery education? If he did, why did he not fight then as he is fighting now?
I was not a Member of Parliament in 1970. I have always taken the view that there is some form of legal obligation upon local education authorities to make some provision. Perhaps the strength of that obligation was not as great as the obligation to provide primary and secondary education. However, I held a common belief that an obligation existed to provide pre-school education.
Does my hon. Friend concede that in Scottish colleges of education—now under fire from the Government—great stress has always been placed on the obligation of the teaching profession to campaign for nursery education? That was stressed against the backdrop of the 1962 Act. Is it not a fact that when we were students at such colleges of education, staff propaganda was an essential part of our courses?
I never believed everything that they told us at colleges of education. However, I agree that they laid proper emphasis on the provision and extension of nursery education in Scotland and elsewhere.
I am keen to intervene because the hon. Gentleman has talked about two types of obligation. One apparently carries statutory requirements, and the other carries something else. Will he define the two forms of obligation more clearly, as well as their legal effects?
I do not know about Bath, but in Scotland a local education authority has a statutory duty to provide primary and secondary education for all children. As regards nursery education, it has never been understood that the obligation was equally comprehensive. However, there is an obligation to provide some nursery education. As a result of the new clauses the Government will remove that statutory obligation.
I am surprised that the Secretary of State for Scotland alone has seen fit to put his name to new clause 2. The clause does not have the support of his hon. Friends. Not even his co-Ministers appear to support him. Once again he has acted as a lackey for his fellow public school boys in the Cabinet. Instead of looking at Scottish legislation and the needs of our children, he has merely followed suit. If his colleagues in the Cabinet think that something is good enough for England and Wales, he thinks that it must be good enough for Scotland. He gets out his old autograph book and signs his name in support of the new clause. That is not good enough.
I notice that the Secretary of State for Scotland is not here. However, at least the Minister responsible for education in Scotland is present. That is more than could be said during the Committee stage. At that time, we only had the inexpert advice of someone who had little, if any, knowledge of Scottish education—the Minister with responsibility for health at the Scottish Office. I thought that that was a tacit admission by the Government that the Bill is attacking not only children's educational standards but their health standards.
The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who has responsibility for education is about the only Conservative Member who went to a Scottish non-fee paying school. He has at least some experience of what might be called the mainstream of Scottish education. I hope that he can tell us why the Secretary of State for Scotland has produced the new clause at this later stage.
Mention has been made of the Attorney-General's statements about the legality of present obligations for the provision of nursery education. We are entitled to a similar statement from the Solicitor-General for Scotland. Where is the hon. and learned Gentleman? Is he away collecting his exorbitant expenses from the Scottish courts, or does he merely not have an interest in education?
Like most ministers at the Scottish Office, the hon. and learned Gentleman has virtually no experience of the mainstream of Scottish education, but he is the only member of the Government qualified to speak on Scottish law. He should have had the courtesy to give us his opinon. I do not expect that he knows much about nursery education, but he could at least explain the Education (Scotland) Act 1962. His comments may have rendered some of my earlier remarks unnecessary. We need a clear statement of the law as it stands before the Government starts butchering Education Acts which are perfectly adequate.
The Minister said that the purpose of these two new clauses was basically clarification. Nevertheless, their effect will be to remove statutory obligations. Local authorities will be discouraged from making adequate provision for nursery education. That is what it is all about. It is similar to the relaxation of the law in depriving children of their legal rights to school meals, milk and transport. All the measures are aimed at implementing proposed Tory cuts in educational expenditure between the current year and the next year of £411 million over the whole of the United Kingdom and £41 million in Scotland. The Government are making it easier for local authorities to implement the cuts. They are encouraging local authorities to abandon what have been considered to be their statutory obligations. That is the thinking behind the new clauses.
If there is any educational philosophy behind all this, it appears to be that this Tory Government think that nursery education is an unecessary frill. For them it is not a priority. It is dispensable, and they can therefore remove the statutory duty on local authorities and allow them to abandon any commitment to provide nursery education. The truth is the exact opposite. Far from being a frill, nursery education is almost a necessity for many children, and that is particularly true in areas of multiple deprivation.
The Minister with responsibility for education at the Scottish Office represents an Edinburgh constituency, but I believe that was brought up and educated in Greenock, and he should know about such areas of deprivation in Clydeside. Whether social or educational, multiple deprivation begins at an early age—long before a child goes to school. We should aim for positive discrimination in favour of deprived children at an early age, before the age of 5, when they would normally be enrolled at a primary school.
Various categories of families with particular difficulties and needs who should have priority have been mentioned—one-parent families and families with working mothers. Partly because of the Government's economic policies, some mothers are virtually forced to work to supplement the family income. Many may prefer to stay at home and look after the children until they are old enough to go to primary school. Albeit reluctantly, some of these mothers have to find jobs because of the economic climate and the family's financial circumstances.
They will find it impossible to do that unless their child is enrolled at nursery school or nursery class or they have someone to look after the baby. However, nursery education should never be regarded simply as a child-minding service. It is not. We should certainly try to look after the needs of single parents, over 80 per cent. of whom are women, and mothers who have to go out to work. However, in considering nursery education, the needs of the child should be paramount. There is plenty of evidence that nursery education can do much to compensate for disadvantage in early life and fulfil the child's educational and social needs.
Some primary teachers used to feel a certain antipathy towards nursery education. They perhaps thought that nursery education was covering certain areas which should more properly be covered by primary schools. Some of that criticism was misinformed. The vast majority of primary teachers are now in favour of nursery education.
I have a magazine from an organisation called the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association, which is not by any means the most radical teachers' association. That association conducted a study of what infant and junior teachers thought about nursery education. It reported:
The children were able to benefit from an environment helping language development—through talking with adults and other children, stories and rhymes, and through activities, creative work, displays, pictures, which all stimulate language.
It went on to state:
Nearly all the teachers agreed that a signal benefit of nursery education lies in the confidence children gain from mixing with other children at an early stage. The consensus was well summed up by a Huddersfield reception class teacher who suggested that the child who has been to a nursery school tended to settle down better when he comes into school, and was more able to co-operate with his peer group and to relate to adults.
Those are examples of opinions of primary teachers on nursery education.
Does my hon. Friend remember that last year the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education produced a pamphlet on nursery education, thus proving that teachers at the top level of teaching are deeply interested in nursery education, for some of the reasons that my hon. Friend has just given?
My hon. Friend is right. It is not just primary and nursery teachers who are in favour of the expansion of nursery eduction. Virtually all educationists are unanimous in their approval of nursery education and the need for its expansion.
We should aim at legislation and the back-up resources to give all children over 3 years of age the right to a place in a nursery school or class. Priority should be given to children with special needs, such as the physically and mentally disabled, those from single-parent families and those who are victims of multiple deprivation.
If I heard the Secretary of State correctly, he seemed to suggest in an intervention that the last Labour Government slipped up in this respect. I certainly have never claimed that the record of the last Labour Government was perfect in educational matters—particularly nursery education. However, I understand that during the life of the last Labour Government there was a steady improvement in the number of places made available.
It has been rightly pointed out that the reason why capital investment was not as high as it should have been was that many local education authorities, particularly those under Tory control, did not take advantage of the money that the Labour Government were willing to give them to build new nursery schools or provide extra places.
We are now presented with a great opportunity. Recent demographic trends indicate a drop in the number of primary pupils. In fact, most primary schools have suffered a decline in the roll in recent years. We have had the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Secretary of State for Scotland saying that there is a surplus of accommodation and teachers. What alack of imagination they show! They hold up their hands and complain that we have too many classrooms and too many teachers in under-used schools. They talk about the possibility of closing classes, courses and even schools, and of sacking teachers. In fact, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who has responsibility for educational matters, recently declared that local education authorities in Scotland were over-staffed by 2,600 teachers. His solution to the problems of Scottish education is to sack 2,600 teachers. But he is also responsible for employment—or unemployment—in Scotland, and that unemployment is now well over the 200,000 mark—the second worst total since the Second World War.
Ministers have shown no imagination about using under-used resources in human terms and in accommodation terms. I am not suggesting that every unemployed teacher or every teacher threatened with unemployment would necessarily be qualified to teach preschool children, but some might be and others might be trained to do so. Have the Government undertaken any study of such matters? Have they thought about using teachers' aptitudes in whatever area of education they are qualified for?
I mentioned that the demographic trends that we have witnessed in recent years have presented us with a golden opportunity to extend educational provision to more people in the community and over wider areas. Instead of grasping this opportunity, this Government are turning the clock back. This is another reactionary move by this most reactionary of Cabinets, and yet another attack on the rights of children. The principle seems to be that the smaller the children the harder they hit them.
I hope that the House will reject these new clauses, because they are completely contrary to what we should be trying to do in extending pre-school education and education in general for the community at large.
I come to this debate in a somewhat confused way. My great-great-great-grandfather was a famous parliamentarian and spent his parliamentary career in the other place. He was noted as the worst Prime Minister that this country has ever seen—despite much competition in the recent past—by giving away, in an absentminded moment, the American colonies. In fact, he initiated the famous phrase about a politician who met every problem with his mouth wide open because he spent most of his parliamentary career asleep. However, my great-great-great-grandfather was a very confused man, just as I am by various clauses in this Bill.
My constituency happens to be within the area of the Oxfordshire county council. I am well familiar with all the problems of that area. I am familiar with the problems of the proposed closing of nursery schools and the proposed charging for buses. I am also well aware of all the other problems with which the Oxfordshire county council is finding it difficult to grapple.
I believe that the councillors are on the horns of a dilemma because they have been diligent in the past and responsible in responding to Governments of all political complexions who have asked for cuts in public expenditure—and not all councils have responded in such a way. Now they are in difficulty because we are making requests for further cuts. These cuts will take place in services and will cut deeply into the bone. I want to stress that the Oxford county council quite rightly believes that it is acting in accordance with the wishes of this Government just as it acted in accordance with the wishes of previous Governments. It should be remembered that this Government have not set a precedent in asking local authorities to make cuts. Oxford is simply attempting to save money and one way of doing so is by closing nursery schools in the area.
There are many schools of thought on this matter. Most hon. Members on both sides agree that a system of nursery school education is highly desirable. There are some people who believe that it caters only for idle parents, but I do not subscribe to that view. There is another school of thought that says that, because William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and many of us here today did not go to nursery school, the whole idea is unnecessary—after all, look at us now. Nevertheless, I happen to believe in it passionately and I am a fully paid-up member of the "I-like-nursery-schools" fan club. It would be nice if Oxford could not only retain its existing nursery school structure, but could expand it in future.
I also believe very strongly in the autonomy of local councils to run their own affairs. If we want to get councillors of high calibre, we must allow them to take control of their own affairs. We must ensure that they are not just puppets of Westminster politicians who do exactly what we tell them. Of course there must be some degree of control. We control the purse strings and that is most effective. Nevertheless, if we want to attract councillors of high calibre, they must be allowed to get on with the job in hand.
The problem for my right hon. and learned Friend is what to do with the Oxfordshire county council? Should be scold the council? Is he to tell the council that it has autonomy but cannot exercise it? This is an extremely difficult problem. I do not wish to make sport with the dilemma of my right hon. and learned Friend. It is, nevertheless, one that he will have to meet. Unless the position is reversed, Oxfordshire county council is hellbent, if I may use such an unparliamentary expression, on shutting the nursery schools in my area.
That is a difficult problem. I speak on this Bill in a somewhat confused state. I am not entirely sure what I would do if I were my right hon. and learned Friend. I have not gathered precisely what he intends to do. I hope that at some stage he will be kind enough to tell us. Once the nursery schools are destroyed, they are rather like Humpty Dumpty—once pushed off the wall, it is extremely difficult to put back the inside of the egg and to sellotape the shell.
Another part of the Bill that gives me a degree of concern is the possibility of bus charges going through the roof. This is a problem for many families in my area—
Having ventilated, with a degree of enthusiasm, the points I have already made in regard to nursery schools, I wish to draw my brief comments to a speedy conclusion. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will clarify the position that has confused me so much and I look forward to hearing his remarks later today.
There have been three speeches from the Conservative Back Benches today, all, in varying degrees of enthusiasm, favourable towards nursery schools and hoping to see them continued and extended, but all, although I am not sure about the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon), apparently supporting a Government new clause to remove from local authorities any statutory obligation to provide nursery schools and nursery classes. There must be a lesson in that. It seems that Conservative Members are not facing up to the reality of the situation although, when the Division lists are published, I may be prepared to exclude the hon. Member for Abingdon, who has not yet resolved his confusion and uncertainty about how to vote. I put it to the hon. Gentleman and others that it is difficult to see any other explanation for this new clause appearing at this late stage than a desire to get the right hon. and learned Gentleman's friends in Oxfordshire off the hook and to give people in other areas a similar opportunity to close down as many nursery schools as they want.
The new clause could have been tabled at a much earlier stage. It could have been put down for the Committee stage. It could have been included in the Bill when it was introduced if a wider purpose had been intended. It seems obvious that the new clause is to let Oxfordshire off the hook. Oxfordshire has made no secret of its desire to be let off the hook. Its chief education officer, speaking as an officer and not in a party political capacity, said that the Attorney-General's ruling had put the cat among the pigeons and that it was impossible to comply with the law, as it stood, but that, none the less, he would plough ahead regardless with his ideas on the assumption that the law would be changed. The indications were clearly given to the Department of Education and Science and to the Government that Oxfordshire had to be let off the hook. Oxfordshire is not without friends at court and in the highest places of the Government. Other education authorities facing similar pressures would clearly like the indication that they can follow this route and can close nursery schools as an economy measure. I can see no purpose in the new clause other than to provide that opportunity.
This new clause cannot have been tabled to clarify the law. How many times, Mr. Deputy Speaker, can you recall a Minister coming to the House and saying that he must have a new clause added to the Bill to clarify the law, and that he had no other purpose and objective than to see that the statute book was clear and without ambiguity? But the statute book is riddled with ambiguities and unclarity. We live with a great deal of it. Some proves useful at times in deploying arguments.
Whenever Ministers say that they are clarifying the law, they are usually changing it, and trying to put a particular interpretation on it. The purpose of this new clause is to establish the legal position that there should be no statutory obligation to provide nursery education. The Secretary of State nods. We should stop pretending that it is otherwise. It is to remove a statutory obligation which the right hon. and learned Gentleman claims, and which I think we can concede, has not been achieved in practice and, for at least some of the period about which we are talking, has not been as widely acknowledged as at present.
To avoid a great deal more discussion on this fact, I wish to make clear that I have never attempted to deny that what I am doing changes the law. I have said that the duty that appears to exist under section 8 was extremely confused. Clarification was required. I was making clear that in future there would be no duty. I accept that in making that clear I am changing the law.
Why is clarification required? It seems to be required in order to enable some authorities to dispense with nursery education altogether. It is rather a good kind of unclear law that stops even one Conservative education authority closing all its nursery schools. If that is the effect of unclear laws, I wish we had more of them. I do not believe that the existence of the law on the statute book in its present form will present insoluble difficulties for those authorities genuinely trying to provide as much nursery education as present resources permit and which have programmes to develop nursery education to achieve objectives set out in the Act.
I cannot believe that there will be a procession of such authorities arraigned in the courts for failing fully to satisfy the expectations created by the Act. The fear is that certain education authorities will be prevented from dispensing entirely with nursery schools, as we have known them. If there were not that fear I do not believe that the clause would have been introduced. The practical effect of the clause is, I suspect, to give a green light to more local authorities to take that damaging course. That is not what ought to be happening.
The Government should be placing emphasis on retaining existing nursery schools. As the hon. Member for Abingdon said, it is difficult to repair the damage done if nursery schools once close. That is why parents in Buckinghamshire campaigned so vigorously against nursery, school closures in that county. That is why parents in Oxfordshire are now concerned. We should be trying to retain existing nursery schools and using the opportunities presented, given even the present resource difficulties, to expand nursery provision in other ways. We should use the physical space created in primary schools for more nursery classes and use teaching resources that can be freed to make more provision for nursery schools. We should extend provision for under-fives in existing schools and encourage co-operation with the voluntary movement and the playgroup movement.
I reject the view of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), who seemed to think that the playgroup movement was child minding. It is nothing of the kind. The playgroup movement has a definite educational purpose. I oppose wholly the idea that either nursery education, as statutorily provided, or the playgroup movement, is a child-minding system. The proof that the playgroup movement is nothing of the kind is shown by the extensive participation of the mothers whose children are in the groups in the running of those groups.
Nursery education is an educational activity. Its purpose is to widen and to extend the opportunities available to children before they go to school. It was set out in those terms by the Prime Minister in a White Paper when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science. In my view, the White Paper is recommended reading for anyone concerned with nursery education.
The spirit of that White Paper is negated, however, by the exercise on which the Government are engaged today. Nursery education needs to be extended not simply to meet the problems of those families who have to find somewhere to send their children. I reject that narrow interpretation of nursery education. A problem that is not often mentioned is nursery education in rural areas. Much of the provision so far has been in towns, where the problems of multiple deprivation have existed.
A different problem exists in rural areas. Because the number of families on farms and in scattered hamlets is much smaller than in the past, young children do not meet other young children of their own age. Their only company is their parents, and occasionally some older children. Until they go to school they do not have the need or the opportunity to relate to other children of the same age. Their progress in school, particularly if they go to a school which brings together town and country children, is often delayed and retarded because they have not had the same opportunities to talk to other children, to learn to develop and to put forward their own ideas, as those children who have had more opportunity to play with others.
That is why development in the rural areas is so important. It is not achieved, in most cases, by the provision of purpose-built nursery schools, but by extension through existing facilities, and by providing nursery classes and nursery teaching within village schools. I do not believe that any of those developments will be encouraged or strengthened if today we vote off the statute book the existing obligations upon local authorities. By including in the statute book so expressly permissive a new clause we are giving the opposite indication.
We might worry less about the clause if the climate were one in which there was a great and easy natural development of nursery education—a climate in which resources were more readily available and in which there was not the most intense competition for the resources available. But the circumstances are different. We are faced with decline, retrenchment and relentless pressure from the Government to make savings in the whole field of education. The same authorities that are struggling in one field will find themselves struggling in another. Authorities that are trying to provide some measure of education in rural areas are those that are being told to cut school transport and to cut school meals. They are being told that if they do not make those savings they must make savings elsewhere. They are under multiple pressure to make savings in education. This cannot be a time at which to tell them that they have no obligations for nursery education.
The Secretary of State said that he had made one concession. Clause 12 can be used as an appeal procedure when a nursery school is threatened with closure. That will not do very much about the cases where nursery classes are cut, and where the numbers of rising-fives are cut. It might have been more to the point if the Secretary of State had talked in terms of clause 15. He has been prepared to include in the Bill the most extensive and detailed provisions on the regulation and size of schools and classes that have ever been seen in our education legislation.
Clause 15 provides that if a school is reduced in size by 20 per cent it can be made the subject of a reference to the Secretary of State, on the basis that that is a major change in the size and the character of the school. The Secretary of State has not been prepared to apply that sort of consideration to changes in nursery schools. We might have taken his concession more seriously if he had acted in those terms. Clause 15 is an extremely cumbersome procedure, but at least it shows that the Secretary of State is prepared to act. He is saying that one-fifth of the children in one class of a school cannot be removed but that a whole nursery class can be removed.
This is the worst possible moment to wipe off the statute book such obligations on the provision of nursery education. I hope that hon. Members, including Conservative Members who express sympathy with nursery education, will join us in ensuring that the clause is not accepted.
We are witnessing the death knell of nursery education. I cannot help but express my contempt for those hon. Gentlemen who talked about the value of nursery education but who tonight will vote to abolish it. There have been many speeches in the House over the years about the value of nursery education and its importance in child development, but when it comes to the crunch we are told that it is the embroidery in education and that it is not a vitally important part of statutory education. Until we join together and say that we are going to make nursery education obligatory—as obligatory as is education from 5–16—we shall always find that when there are cuts in expenditure nursery education will be the first to go. In their amendments the Government are telling local authorities not to be under any misapprehension. They are telling local authorities that they do not have to provide nursery education.
I agree with the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) about the value of nursery education. I speak as a former nursery school teacher. It is not simply a question of saying that the important years are those after the age of 5. Education is about curiosity, and a child is at its most curious from the ages of 2, 3 and 4. If those valuable years are missed and the child is not given the proper stimulation, the proper play materials and the incentive to explore and to ask questions in a properly structured environment, those years will be lost for ever. All the arguments about improving educational opportunity will be lost. Those vital years can never be recaptured.
When the previous Labour Government were in power we were treated to what was called a great debate on education. The right hon. Gentleman who is now Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) went round the country, day in and day out, week in and week out, informing people that the standard of education was falling, that the State schools were appalling, and that the primary schools and their allegedly progressive methods were causing great damage to school children. At that time I defended education in Britain. I defended the State system. I wish that I had had the opportunity to go to the comprehensive school that my son attends. To slur Labour Members who attended educational establishments chosen by their parents is ridiculous. If some Labour Members and, indeed, some Conservative Members had had the opportunity of comprehensive education, and if some had attended nursery schools, we might be hearing speeches the like of which we have never heard before.
The prophecy about State education is beginning to come true. State education is being undermined, and it is being abolished. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) made a sympathetic speech about nursery education. He said that we should campaign and convince people. People are convinced. Many people outside the House of Commons today were lobbying hon. Members about nursery education. People have lobbied since 1968. At that time they came to the House of Commons in their thousands to protest that they wanted more nursery education.
If a survey were to be conducted and if people were to be asked if they would prefer an assisted places scheme to nursery education, I know what the answer would be. Working-class and middle-class mothers would all say the same. Nursery education does not simply involve child minding; it should be the right of every child. Every child should have the right to facilities as a first step towards a wider education environment.
Today the death knell of nursery education has sounded. We do not wish to cloud the issue. Local authorities are being told that they do not have to provide nursery education. Never before when there have been expenditure cuts have we taken it upon ourselves to instruct or give permission to local authorities to cut nursery education. The irony of the situation is that under the Labour Administration, 54 per cent. of 4-year-olds gained access to nursery schools, nursery classes or early entrance into primary schools. Time and again, when allocations were made available, the Tory authorities refused those allocations.
Until facilities for the under-fives, in the broadest possible way—facilities for mothers who have to work and for mothers who do not have to work—are based on education, and until that is made a statutory obligation, we shall always be pushed back into the position in which the first to fall under the cuts will be those children who most need the provision—the under-fives.
Without being in any way critical, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of the order in which you call upon hon. Members to speak, I had hoped that I might speak after the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan). During the course of his speech—which we have heard many times in Committee—he made his customary attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Fairgrieve)—the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who is responsible for health matters. He also made his usual attack on and asked his usual question about the Solicitor-General for Scotland.
I would have preferred to follow immediately after the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire in order to demonstrate to some of my hon. Friends that the Scottish education system is not one from which the teaching of manners is totally absent. I hope that my few remarks will contrast with the remarks, sometimes—indeed, often—intemperate, which they hear on the Floor of the House and also in Committee. I should also like to deal with the speech of the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor).
The problem with which we are faced in Scotland and in England in regard to the present legislation is in knowing whether a local education authority in England, or an education authority in Scotland, is obliged to provide nursery education. As I understand my right hon. and learned Friend's argument, nobody thought that the authorities were under that obligation. A look at the percentage of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in Scotland and in England who were in nursery education would suggest that the local authorities did not think that they were obliged to provide nursery education for all the children who wanted it.
I have in mind some of the local education authorities in England. I am sure that some Labour Members will tell me that these are Conservative-controlled local education authorities, but that does not matter. They obey the law, and if the law said that they had to provide the facilities they would have done so. Some figures are as low as 2 per cent. and 3 per cent. Over the whole of England, the figure for nursery schools is 18 per cent. It is the same in Scotland. It is therefore quite clear from the figures that for many years local education authorities have not considered that they had an obligation to provide nursery education on a grand scale. Tonight we are making regular the position in which these local authorities thought that they were.
In the debate, Opposition Members are suggesting that nursery education ought to be expanded and ought to be provided for all children. I should have thought that that was not obeying the spirit of the legislation, and would certainly not be in keeping with the priorities that we ought to put on the spending of money on education at this time.
The debate is, therefore, partly about the legislation—some Opposition Members have mentioned it—but it is also partly about whether we should be providing education—as suggested by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough—virtually for all children above the age of 2 years, in her case, and the age of 3 years in the case of other hon. Members.
The provision of facilities for the under-fives in this country at the moment is met principally by the play group organisation and the Pre-School Playgroups Association. In my own constituency, for example, the figures for this type of provision are much better than those for nursery education. In one part of my constituency, 59 per cent. of all children between 3 and 5 years of age attend playgroups. In another area, the figure goes up to 65 per cent. In one island—such areas are very difficult, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) pointed out—45 per cent. of the children between 3 and 5 years of age attend playgroups.
I am aware that some people do not greatly approve of playgroups because they are not manned by professionals and because funny people called parents, who have no skills in these matters, run playgroups. The fact that they are not under the control of the State is also regarded unfavourably.
I should like to read a short quotation from a book called "Who Cares?", by Penelope Leach, in which she examines the relationship between an expanding nursery school's education system and a pre-school playgroup system based on mothers and their friends. This is an area where the provision of facilities for the under-fives could be expanded without spending any more money, because at the moment, at 1976 prices, it costs £1,130 annually in running expenses to provide a nursery school place. A great many playgroup places could be provided for that kind of money. It is not, of course, nursery school education, but the point that I am making, and made in Committee, is that I do not consider, unlike some of my hon. Friends, that nursery schools are of themselves good things—the goodies that ought to be dished out to children.
Parents—and mothers in particular—have a much more important role to play than is accepted by those who put forward the general thesis that children should go to nursery school at 4, 3 or 2 years of age.
I want to return to the question of the playgroup movement because it is important, if we are talking about provision for the under-fives, that we should not ignore their very important role. This is what Penelope Leach says:
Playgroups need more State money but not more State interference and getting the one without the other will be difficult. The 'by parents, for parents and the children' philosophy, which keeps them as generators rather than replacers of parental resources, is already threatened by ideas about 'integrating them into other services for children under five'. The idea of running this kind of playgroup 'under the supervision of' an attached day nursery or child health clinic, is anathema. To be an extension of parental resources, playgroups have to belong, to be run by and be the responsibility of, the parents of the children who use them. The anxiety of the State to ensure that children are kept safe and are 'properly' cared for is commendable and their fear of liability in case of accident is understandable. Nevertheless, if playgroups are to function as parent-resources, the State will have to trust them"—
—an amazing doctrine—
to know best. If they do not, playgroups will become more and more like nursery schools; places which parents accept as being of benefit to their children but from which they, personally, tend to flee.
That quotation demonstrates—
I cannot see how the point that the hon. Lady has just made marries with the points made by most of her hon. Friends about working mothers. If the mothers are working they cannot be participating. As I understand a lot of the quotations that I have read about nursery education, it is the influence of the professionals that is important—that the professional will man it and not the parents. The playgroups to which my children went, and which exist in my constituency, are manned in the main by the mothers of the children. It is the mothers who look after them.
That is utter rubbish. It is possible to go into any junior school and pick three types of children. There are those who did not go to a playgroup or nursery school, those who went to a playgroup, and those who went to a nursery school. There is a direct division between all three categories, and it is the nursery school that comes out top every time.
With respect, I shall come back to that later in my speech, when I hope to investigate the impact of the nursery school. If the hon. Gentleman means what he says, he ought to be saying that we should reduce the school starting age and place a duty on the parents to send their children to nursery school, otherwise the children will be missing something very serious in their education. Once the argument is accepted for the 4-year-old child it can be further argued for the 3-year-old.
In that way, we can go on until the parents have little or no responsibility for their children. The children will go to school from the age of 3 and they will be there from 9 am until 3.30 pm. Many children feel that they are at school long enough in their lives. It would be quite wrong to send children to school at the age of 3 when they ought to be enjoying their play and loving care at home. It would be greatly to the detriment of the child, of the mother, and of the family, as the basic unit of our society.
I turn to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), with which I did not agree. He mentioned the Think Tank—the Central Policy Review Staff—and I wish to quote some of its remarks in advancing the theory of nursery education. They help to reinforce my argument that nursery education is a diminution of the role of the mother and the family.
The Think Tank said:
Most parents with young children need advice and help in caring for them and bringing them up…Governmental agencies have an increasing role to play in providing the essential health and advisory services to help young parents…The assumption that in normal circumstances…the family can cope is now no longer a sufficient answer.
If that is what it thinks, I am not impressed. It is suggesting that the family is not nearly such an important thing in our society as I believe it should be, and as I am sure that most right thinking Members believe it should be.
I turn to two or three of the arguments for nursery school education. I accept that there is a role for nursery education for certain children. I deal first with the working mums. Reports by the CBI and the trade unions are naturally slanted towards the theory that if a mum does not wish to work she is somehow an inadequate person, and that we should organise our facilities so that she can go out to work.
I tabled a question to the Department of Employment on 29 October 1979, and was told that in Britain in 1978 there were about 2¾ million mothers with children under 5. About 750,000 of those were in paid employment—under 30 per cent.—of whom fewer than 200,000 were in full-time employment—that is, working 30 hours or more per week. The remaining 600,000 worked part-time—that is, less than 30 hours per week. Unfortunately, the Department could not give me a greater breakdown of the 30 hours. Even if we consider part-time and full-time work, fewer than one-third of the under-fives have mothers who go out to work.
If nursery education is expanded beyond the needs of even a portion of that one-third—because many mothers in part-time work may not require all-day facilities—it will bring in a number of mums who do not go out to work, who do not wish to go out to work, but who begin to feel that they have to send their children to nursery school because, taking the argument of the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. McKay), somehow the children emerge from nursery school better than they emerge from the home. I cannot accept that argument.
The hon. Gentleman belongs to a party that supposedly prides itself on the principle of freedom of choice. Should it not be left to the parents to choose whether to send their children to nursery school or a nursery class? Should that choice not be made available to them by the local education authority? The new clause would deprive them further of that choice.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that our general principle in education is that there should be freedom of choice. The new clause gives local authorities the power to provide nursery education, but does not make it a duty. Those parents who want nursery education can have it. It is up to the local authorities. Those authorities in areas of greater need, perhaps deprivation, would provide more facilities. That is the role of the local councillor. The lack of confidence that is shown in him by many hon. Members is amazing. They do not think that he could make a reasonable decision about his area. He is in the best position to make a reasonable decision.
I return to the question of disadvantaged children. I have been fair about the report. I wish to refer the House to some recent remarks by Dr. Barbara Tizard. In no way does Dr. Tizard not believe in nursery education. A recent newspaper article states:
Dr. Tizard said she was convinced that nursery schools were needed but that no good could come from propagating the wrong beliefs about their role.
The article quotes Dr. Tizard as saying
Nursery education as it is practiced in this country today is held out as essential for the intellectual development of children. I cannot support that view.
The article goes on to say:
Dr. Tizard said that nursery schools were needed and must not be cut back. But teachers and psychologists were wrong if they believed that:
the home was a less effective learning environment than nursery school;
that the sort of language used in working-class homes is inadequate and has a marked effect on a child's later performance;
that it was more important to provide children with a rich choice of activities than to get them used to completing a task; and that children got more chance to play with adults at nursery schools than at home.
Dr. Tizard believes that the basic assumption that nursery education benefits the educational position of the child is not well founded, and that the evidence does not confirm it. However, to be fair, she believes that nursery education has an important role to play and should be expanded.
I understand my hon. Friend to be saying that nursery education, but not the pre-school play group, undermines family life. The best demolition of that argument was in Lord Butler's speech on the Second Reading of the 1944 Act. If anything undermines family life it is that—unlike the French—we do not have a benefit system that encourages mothers to stay at home.
I am sorry that my speech is flowing rather fast. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Bath would be able to watch the water running out. He is obviously back at the position of the 750,000 mothers, out of 2¾ million mothers, who feel that they have to go out to work. He makes a valid point—I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer would not be delighted to hear him make it—when he suggests that it would be in the best interests of the family, the mums and the children if we considered ways financially to help mothers to stay at home so that they did not feel obliged to go out to work.
The hon. Gentleman interrupts me from his usual sedentary position. The trouble with child benefits is that they do not go to the families who need them most, but go also to other families who do not need them in order that the mother can stay at home and look after the children.
If we continue to advocate more and more nursery education, we will be entering a debate—without actually saying it—about lowering the age at which children start school. That may be a worthwhile debate, but we should have it as the subject of another debate rather than under the guise of expanding or contracting nursery education.
I realise that I have struck a discordant note in the agreement between both sides of the House. I am sure that Opposition Members will not be surprised when they do not find me in the Lobby with them.
The worst that could happen to our society is for the House and educationists to attempt to put across the idea to families and mothers that they are doing their children a favour if they send them to nursery school as early as possible. That would be the wrong thing to do. However, that is what might happen, because many contributions from Opposition Members have suggested just that.
The intervention by the hon. Member for Penistone. Had the hon. Member for Eton and Slough listened to him she would realise that of all the groups who enter primary 1, nursery children are in the best possible position. If that is the case, let us have a debate about starting school at the age of 4, 3½ or 3. Indeed, it could even be suggested that the children should be taken away once the mother has weaned them so that the professionals could look after them. But that sounds like an advertisement for the Army.
Let us not continue to advocate more and more nursery education and nursery schools if it is to the detriment of the playgroup movement—which is a commendable organisation—based as it is on the role of the family and the mother in relation to the critical role of the under-fives. I am happy to back my right hon. and learned Friend in his amendments on nursery education, although I must admit that my happiness with regard to other parts of the Bill is not quite so unqualified.
I am aware of the time, and in a debate that has been guillotined we are still due to discuss other parts of the Bill before the closure on this group of amendments. Therefore, I wish to keep my remarks brief.
Those of us who come from Scotland have a problem. This is the only part of the debate that refers directly to Scotland. Therefore, Scottish Members wish to contribute to it. It is perhaps to the Government's shame that in a Bill which in the main covers England and Wales they have included a large section covering Scotland, instead of introducing separate legislation which Scottish Members could debate fully.
There is no dubiety at all in Scotland about whether there is a duty to provide nursery education. There may be some dubiety in England and Wales because of the provisions of the 1944 Act, but, as I read the Education (Scotland) Act 1962, there is no such doubt in Scotland. The fact is that what is happening in Scotland is not a clearing up of the law, but is a straight repeal of the existing duty upon local authorities to provide nursery education.
I have some reservations about the wording of new clause 2, because it refers to:
The duties of an education authority under section 1 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1962".
The House should know quite clearly what that Act says. It says:
It shall be the duty"—
I emphasise the word "duty"—
of every educational authority to secure that adequate and sufficient provision is made throughout their area of all form of primary secondary and further education.
Section 2 defines exactly what is meant by primary education. It states:
In this Act 'primary education" means progressive elementary education in such subjects as may be prescribed in that behalf in regulations made under subsection (2) of the last foregoing section, regard being had to the age, ability and aptitude of the pupils concerned, and includes—
(a) training by appropriate methods in schools and classes (hereinafter referred to as 'nursery schools' and 'nursery classes') for pupils between the age of two years and such later age as may be permitted by the said regulations".
However, section 2(3) states:
The provision of primary education in nursery schools and nursery classes shall be deemed to be adequate if such provision is made at centres where sufficient children whose parents desire such education for them can be enrolled to form a school or class of a reasonable size".
That is clear cut, and it is absolute in law. Under the 1962 Act local authorities have a duty—not a responsibility—to provide nursery education. I am sure that many Scottish Members feel that today's debate is about an education Bill covering England and Wales, and perhaps they are not aware that this new clause, which has been inserted at this late stage, will influence nursery education in Scotland as well as in England and Wales.
That has occurred at a time when, as my hon. Friend, the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) made clear, the demographic trends are towards a decline in the number of children below the age of 5, and now below the age of 10. As a result, we shall have primary schools with a small number of pupils, and classrooms and teachers will be available. This is not the time to take away the duty of education authorities to provide nursery education. It is the time to expand it, because facilities exist in primary schools that can be used to set up nursery classes.
Now is the time to do that. If it is done now, it can be done reasonably cheaply. I never like having education on the cheap, but on this occasion we could provide nursery education for all who desire it. I emphasise that point to the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Mackay). The local authority in the constituencies of the hon. Member for Argyll and myself is Labour-controlled and will ensure that nursery education continues, but others will not. This is the ideal time to provide such education. There should be a programme of expansion, not a cut-back, as the new clause implies.
With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to intervene briefly and make some references to the differences with regard to Scottish legislation. My right hon. and learned Friend will shortly wind up the debate, but in his opening speech he referred to the Bill as it applies to Scotland. In other words, the intention is to restate the law on the provision of nursery education.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) quoted from section 1 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1962, which says that an education authority in Scotland has a duty:
to secure that adequate and sufficient provision is made throughout their area
of school education. School education, as defined in the Act, includes activities in nursery schools and classes of a kind that are suitable for pupils who are under school age. Therefore, there is no doubt that education authorities in Scotland have a duty in relation to the provision of school education and nursery schools and classes. But, thereafter, the Act does not elaborate on the extent of the duty. To that extent, the hon. Gentleman quoted from the 1962 Act before it was amended by the 1969 Act.
In practice, therefore, as in England and Wales, education authorities vary as to the level of provision that they have made for nursery education, perhaps because they have been under the impression that they have a discretion in the matter and not a defined duty. In addition, circumstances vary from one area to another. There is, therefore, the same need as there is south of the border to bring the law into line with what it has apparently been assumed to be.
Was not the hon. Gentleman present earlier when his right hon. and learned Friend said that the need was for clarification, because in England and Wales there was a responsibility rather than a duty? The Under-Secretary is now saying that it is not so much a responsibility as a duty, although it is not an effective duty because the degree of provision is not laid down. Is not the natural progression from that argument to specify the duty and the degree of duty rather than to remove the duty altogether?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a duty. The extent to which that duty should be further clarified is one of the purposes of the new clause. As I have just said, the provision varies. Most people assume that local authorities in Scotland have a power or discretion in this matter rather than a duty. There has been some misunderstanding on that matter. We make the clear point in the amendment that there is a power and not a duty. The discretion that people thought they had in this respect is now being clarified in the legislation. I am glad that the hon. Gentlemen agree. The difference between the new clause that affects England and Wales and the new clause that we propose arises largely from the differences in the wording of the existing Scots legislation and that for England and Wales.
I make three brief points. I repeat the assurance that was given by my right hon. and learned Friend that there has been no change of mind on the Government's part about the importance of nursery education.
It has been interesting to listen to some of the comments made. For example, the hon Member for Gower (Mr. Davies) referred to the number of children in nursery education. The number of children in Scotland receiving nursery education increased substantially from about 14,000 in September 1972 to almost 32,000 in September 1979. It is significant, in the light of those remarks, that the number of children in playgroups in Scotland is now about 45,000, so that the voluntary side of this important activity has been capable of expanding at an even faster rate in this period than the schools side.
We in Scotland decided not to introduce charges for nursery education. There is no need for us to introduce an amendment to bring the closure of nursery schools within the Secretary of State's control. Under section 22 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1962, Scottish education authorities already require the Secretary of State's approval before they can discontinue any educational establishment, or part of an educational establishment, under their management. That provision includes nursery schools and classes.
Those were the distinct Scottish points in the debate. I ask the House to agree to new clause 2.
It is sad that the Conservative Party does not admit that the aim of the new clause is, first, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, to get Oxfordshire off the hook, and, secondly, to enable any council that wants to do so to abandon completely nursery education—in other words, to save money by hurting the youngest members of our community. Government supporters know that as well as the Opposition do. We tried to point that out. However, when so much hypocrisy emanates from Government supporters, it must be shown clearly to the press and those listening exactly what the Government are up to.
Up to the point when it became necessary to say which way they were voting, one would have thought that Government supporters were talking about the expansion of nursery education. They all realise how profoundly the people in this country believe in nursery education. They pay lip-service to that principle. They speak as though they want to expand such education. They realise how important it is, and then they go on to say that they will vote for the new clause. Every one of them—they are not fools—knows that this new clause is destined to strike a deadly blow at the whole of nursery education. Every teacher here—even Tory teachers—knows that that will happen and that the way is now being paved for it to happen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) said that this was the beginning of immobilising nursery education in this country. It will go on from there as long as we have such a reactionary Government. It was pointed out that if the sum of £50 million or £60 million that is to be filched from our people, and the funds to be provided for the so-called assisted places scheme were given to the expansion of nursery education, there would be some sense in it.
The reality is that any teacher knows that one wants a one-to-one relationship when teaching. We need small classes in the nursery schools. The child has left the most important person in his life—his mother. He has to get into a long queue—if indeed any nursery education is available. Every teacher knows that small classes benefit the children. Later on in the pupils' education the teachers can tell the difference between those who received nursery education and those who did not.
There were nearly 100 hours of debate on the Bill in Committee. This clause was never mentioned. After the Committee stage the Government's advisers pointed out to them that they could make a killing on saving money out of the little children. The Tories then introduced a further cut in education by introducing the new clause—against which the Opposition will vote later.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that he will introduce clarity. To whom does he think he is talking when he says that? He is introducing a major cut in education under the guise of clarity. The unclear law that he intends to clarify is far better than the so-called clear law that he is imposing on us. If he says that he is rectifying the law, that is up to him. However, he will move it in the opposite direction, not by giving us clarity, but by preventing us from providing nursery education even when we want to do so.
I was on the point of reading the exact part of the 1944 Act and then giving it my interpretation. It says:
(2) In fulfilling their duties under this section, a local education authority shall, in particular, have regard—
(b) to the need for securing that provision is made for pupils who have not attained the age of five years by the provision of nursery schools or, where the authority consider the provision of such schools to be inexpedient, by the provision of nursery classses in other schools;".
When it says "have regard to" it does not mean "disregard". "Having regard to" means providing the classes. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman thinks that "having regard to" is a mental exercise—that one reads the clause, thinks about it, and does nothing—that is up to him. To me "having regard to" means having nursery education. That is what most authorities have done—even the Tory authorities that had neglected to take up their allocations in the past few years. Therefore, a statutory duty has been violated by successive Governments.
Many hon. Members would support the right hon. and learned Gentleman if he were to clarify that law by making it clear that the provision of nursery education is a duty, as it is in Scotland.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman to be clear about this? Is he now saying that it has always been his view that there was a duty rather than merely a power to provide education for the under-fives? If so, before he answers will he remember that he led a deputation to see me about this matter on one occasion?
That has always been my opinion, although it has not always been the opinion of every member of the Opposition. I was chairman of the national advisory committee on primary schools of the National Union of Teachers. All through that time I interpreted that clause in the way that I have just put it. However, it is not merely my opinion. I refer to The Times Educational Supplement editorial of the past week. The Minister has read it. In big black print it is called:
A bad Bill which will positively harm education.
Under the heading "Nursery Education" it talks about "this miserable Bill" and further on it refers to
This ill-considered ragbag of a Bill.
Those are not my words, but those of The Times Educational Supplement.
Winston Churchill once described The Times as the three penny edition of the Daily Worker. I am sure that many Government supporters will come to regard that august journal, The Times Educational Supplement, in a similar light. The editorial takes the Government to task for cheating on education and harming the youngest of our children.
It has been said that 20 per cent. of children under 5 who are not in nursery classes are in junior schools. Those are the children who, possibly for one term before going to the junior school, go into an infant class. Children who have had that extra term are nearly always better at reading than are the children who come in a term later.
According to the front page of The Times Educational Supplement, the provision of nursery education is now discretionary rather than a legal duty, the law is to be changed, and the statutory duty will go. It interprets the provision in the 1944 Act as a statutory duty, just as I do.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman the question that I asked before? I have a vivid recollection of that meeting. Is he saying that before I put down the amendment he believed that there was a statutory duty to provide education for the under-fives, or did he believe that part of the reason why there was not adequate provision was that the powers of the local authority in this respect were completely discretionary?
I believed that. The deputation that I led was of the ASTMS, not the NUT, and it was to ask the Secretary of State whether he would charge for nursing education. He assured me that he would not. I am not sure whether he knows that he will not. He thinks that he will not, but I think that the time will come when he will charge.
The clause will inflict severe damage on the educational chances of that most vulnerable section of the community, small children under 5 years of age. It strikes a terrible blow against the foundation of education.
It has been said that about 19 per cent. of youngsters go to nursery school. I think that the figure is about 18 per cent., but that percentage is under attack. Tory Members say that they are in favour of the expansion of nursery education. Do they think that there will be an expansion in Oxfordshire? That authority has said flatly that it will kill nursery education. Do Tory members, who weep crocodile tears about nursery education and say they want expansion, realise that when the clause goes through and Oxfordshire gets away with it all Tory authorities throughout the country will wade in and save cash on nursery education?
The Secretary of State is carrying out orders from on high given by a former Secretary of State for Education and Science, who seeks by devices of all kinds to cut down on nursery education and education in general to save money. Let us be quite clear. The aim of the clause is to save money at the expense of the youngest members of our community by curtailing nursery education.
I am concerned about the ill-informed, misleading and patronising speech made by the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Mackay). He said that he had never been inside a nursery school; he did not know the difference between a play group and a nursery school and he was attempting to divide the House on an issue that is not before us.
I am sorry that the Secretary of State has not seized the opportunity to make nursery education part of the statutory system. Had he had the courage to do so he would have won the applause of the Opposition. It is part of the Labour Party's policy to provide nursery education for all children between the ages of 3 and 5 whose parents wish it.
We have heard patronising talk about mums farming their children out to nursery schools and dodging their obligations. What do Tory Members think about parents who farm out their children to boarding schools or prep schools and so dodge their obligations?
My constituency has been fortunate in having a Labour-controlled authority for many years which has provided a number of nursery schools and nursery classes. The authority has converted old primary schools into marvellous new nursery schools and a considerable proportion of young children are able to enjoy nursery education. I defy those who say that there is no difference between children who have been to nursery school and those who have not. All teachers say that children who have been to nursery school are more poised, better developed, more articulate and more self-confident than children who have not had that opportunity.
There are two organisations which are largely responsible for building up a massive head of steam behind the demand for nursery education. They are the Campaign for Nursery Education and the former Nursery Schools Association which is now the British Association for Early Childhood Education. That body has not developed since before the time of the previous Labour Government. It is about 60 years old and it is very disappointed in the lack of progress towards nursery education by Governments of both parties during its lifetime.
The occasion when the former Secretary of State for Education and Science—the present Prime Minister—brought forward her White Paper on education in 1972 was a red letter day for nursery education. We thought we had arrived. We know better now. It would be salutary for the hon. Member for Argyll to read his leader's White Paper. It sets out the aims and objectives of nursery education and provided the starting point for many of us who were working in education although not in the House.
Another women Minister responsible for education, Florence Horsbrugh, produced a notorious circular, 8/60, which condemned the provision of nursery education to remain at the low level it was in 1957. For years teachers and enthusiasts for nursery education campaigned to have that circular removed. The Prime Minister removed it in her White Paper of 1972. We thought that was a milestone and that we would surge ahead with an expansion of nursery education. The Secretary of State of the day set out the advantages for the development of practical and social skills that stem from nursery education. Children in the deprived urban and rural areas were in- cluded because their needs were equally great.
Another advantage of nursery education is, as the White Paper said, the indentification of children with special difficulties, such as those who are mentally handicapped or who have psychological or medical problems who could benefit from being with a group of ordinary children. Paragraph 28 of the White Paper said:
All children can gain from nursery education.
That should be the Secretary of State's guiding light, but he has extinguished that light. The White Paper went on:
but it is particularly valuable for children whose home and life are restricted, for whatever reason.
All these important concepts and precepts concerning nursery education have clearly been thrown overboard by this Government. It is a tragedy that it is a Government led by a former Secretary of State for Education, now the Prime Minister, who have also thrown over the great ideals and inspiration that lay behind the presentation of that valuable White Paper.
I remind the House that the Plowden report estimated that demand for nursery places by the year 1981, which is next year, would rise to 700,000 full-time equivalent places. We are far from reaching that kind of provision. With the new clause we shall clearly proceed much more slowly. I suggest that he has put the clock back to what it was before 1972.
Members of the Oxfordshire Campaign for Nursery Education group who came to the House to lobby today are rightly worried about what will happen. What will the Minister say when a local education authority asks for permission to close a nursery school and tells him that it is because he—he said this at the beginning of his speech—is restricting its resources to the level of 1979–80? It will not have the resources to maintain its nursery schools at their present level and certainly will be unable to expand them. Inflation and the rising cost of materials will starve them of the resources required to enable them to continue. Will the Secretary of State say "All right: I will find more money so that you can keep your nursery schools running"; or will he say "You can close them down"? The prospect for nursery education is grim and I hope that the whole House will vote against the new clause.
I find it ironic that just as the wonderful discovery has apparently been made that all along the 1944 Act laid an obligation on local authorities to provide nursery education, the Secretary of State's contribution is to seek to withdraw it. Having gathered to himself a fig-leaf of protection by saying that he will have to give permission for a nursery school to be closed, what will the Secretary of State do to encourage the increase of nursery education and save the position in some areas? For example, education for the rising fives is severely threatened as many LEAs are considering proposals not to admit them so that they can save money. The LEAs concerned include Avon, Surrey, Warwickshire, Gateshead and Newcastle. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's fig-leaf will not protect him. What will the Secretary of State be able to say to these LEAs as they pursue these plans during the coming financial year?
The Secretary of State's hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) said, in a written answer on 22 October 1979, that this year the number of nursery places would rise from 210,000 to 220,000 and in the following year they would rise to 226,000. How will the Secretary of State encourage the spread and increase of nursery education, having removed the alleged statutory duty from the 1944 Act? What will he do about recalcitrant LEAs, many of which have made only minimal provision for nursery education for a long time? Let me just tell the House which they are. The list includes Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Havering, Redbridge, Richmond-upon-Thames, Devon, Dorset, East Sussex, Essex, Hampshire, Hereford and Worcester, Kent, Lincolnshire, Somerset, Suffolk, and Gloucestershire with none at all. I am reading out only a list of the worst offenders because most of these authorities provide nursery education for less than 10 per cent. of the population of three and four year olds. That estimate was given in January 1979.
What will the Secretary of State do with local authorities like those I have listed? How will he encourage them to increase nursery education when he has made clear his real attitude towards nursery education by putting forward the new clause? The Secretary of State's right hon. Friends in the Treasury are busy taking the cash away and he is busy taking away any encouragement or obligation there might have been under the 1944 Act. What will the Secretary of State do about offending LEAs which are worse than those I have mentioned and which include counties such as Avon which, during five years of Labour government had access to part of £50 million which the Labour Government made available for nursery school building programmes? What will the right hon. and learned Gentleman do about those LEAs that turned up their noses at that provision not just in one year but during the whole five years?
Will the Secretary of State match the provision made by the Labour Government during their period in office? I do not think that the amount provided was enough, but in the four years between 1974 and 1978 the Labour Government made £51 million available in loan sanctions under the nursery education building programme. During 1978–79 the amount was almost £4·5 million, and we actually planned to make over £14 million available for the years 1979–80. So if we had won the election at least the smallest children in our community would have had a much better deal.
I admit that the Labour Government did not do all that those of us within the Parliamentary Labour Party wanted by way of providing places for nursery education, but at least the number of places rose from approximately 121,000 at the beginning of our period of office to 198,000 by the time we left office. It was an increase. More places were made available. I agree that not enough places were made available and that not enough cash was set aside for the nursery school building programme. However, the offenders I have listed are, in almost every case, Tory-controlled authorities. They must be waiting with glee for the new clause to be passed because they know they will be able to sweep away any notion of an obligation that they may have had to provide this type of education.
Like all the Tory spending cuts, this is not even sensible. One thing that I have noticed about all the cuts in expenditure planned for the coming year and the following years is that they are shortsighted and stupid. They appear to cut costs and make savings but other services will have to pick up the costs elsewhere either immediately or at a later date.
Let us consider what Halsey has said recently about nursery school education:
a pre-school programme, properly devised, can be a most economical investment for a government wishing to save money on schools.
It is a good investment for a Government who wish to improve education standards at the same time. If we wish to save money on education, we must lay a firm foundation in nursery education. It is cost-effective in the long run. However, when the Tories come to saving money they think only in the short term. They cannot see beyond the end of next week or beyond this year's balance sheet.
Why would the Government be laying such a firm foundation with good nursery education? I refer to a study that has recently been undertaken on the Headstart programme in the United States. Over recent years the programme has been much criticised. Scorn has been poured on it. It has been said that the programme achieved nothing. However, a proper long-term assessment of the programme has been carried out.
The study led to four results. First, it indicated that in narrow education terms—there are other benefits from nursery education—those who took part in the programme were much less likely to be assigned later to special or remedial classes.
Secondly, the study revealed that those who had taken part in the programme were much less inclined to drop out from school at a later date or, in the American system, have to repeat a year's work because of poor performance.
Thirdly, the study indicated that the achievement in mathematics at the age of 10 was significantly improved through nursery education—namely through the Headstart programme.
Fourthly, children from poorer families who took part in the programme scored higher than those with whom they were compared.
All those benefits were achieved by a properly constructed programme of education. That answers the nonsense uttered by the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Mackay). The pre-school playgroup is valuable, but it cannot replace a properly structured programme of education. It cannot provide education benefits in the years to come. It may provide some of the social benefits of a nursery school, but it cannot provide the education benefits, especially for poorer children.
The hon. Gentleman referred to Dr. Barbara Tizard's research. In my view he entirely misrepresented her. Her conclusions stemmed from a programme which she carried out and which was financed by the Department of Education and Science. The project was focused on encouraging parental involvement in nursery schools. There was another project on adult-child language at school and at home. Dr. Tizard concluded that nursery schools should not impose alien middle class cultures on working class children and should not seek to restrict the type of language that the children use at home while at school. The hon. Gentleman entirely misrepresented Dr. Tizard's work. She was considering the sort of education that should be received in nursery schools. She emphasised the importance of parental involvement.
The hon. Member for Argyll referred to the number of children who have working mothers. He ignored two features. First, he ignored the fact that about 90 per cent. of mothers—that is the percentage according to most surveys—would prefer their children to attend nursery schools at the age of 3 years or 4 years. There are some who would prefer their children to attend such schools at a younger age. A high percentage of mothers wish their children to obtain nursery education. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman entirely ignored the wish of many mothers who are at present at home with young children to go to work. Many would do so if proper nursery education and nursery care facilities were made available for them.
My right hon. and hon. Friends are not suggesting that parents should be coerced to send their children to school at 3 years or 4 years. My view is that most children are ready to move outside the home for at least part of the day at that age. In that way, children especially those from poorer families, can derive enormous education benefits. It is vital that nursery education be made available.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is running away from any hint that there may be a statutory obligation. He offers no explanation of how his party proposes to fulfil its wish to provide nursery education so that each child may progress as far as his or her abilities allow. Instead he allows his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Treasury to cut the ground from under his feet as they busily slash his budget for the coming financial year. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends and some Conservative Members will oppose the new clause.
I believe that education should start at the age of 3 years and that it should never stop. I have held that belief for many years. I advanced that argument to Sir Alec Clegg about 22 years ago. Sir Alec accused me—the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Mackay) has made a similar accusation—of taking children out of mothers' arms. I spoke to Sir Alec not long ago. I reminded him of our encounter 22 years ago and it appears that he has altered his attitude. Many others have altered their views on nursery education. That is why I am disappointed by the Secretary of State's statement. I have always considered the statutory obligation to start at the age of 5 years. Had I known what the right hon. and learned Gentleman stated, I am sure that there would have been more nursery classes within the area represented by my local authority. The argument has always been presented to me that the statutory obligation began at 5 years.
Those in the area that I represent have seen the benefits of nursery education. It is in the old West Riding area, an area that devoted most of its resources to secondary education. The only benefit that we derived from local government reorganisation was the opportunity to pour resources into nursery education. That gave me the opportunity to witness something that I have wanted for most of my life, namely, education from 3 years to 18-plus in my locality.
Nursery education has presented opportunities to many children. I do not decry or seek to undermine playgroups, which perform a valuable role. I applaud the work that they undertake. However, I sometimes think that they exist merely to fill the vacuum that is created by not having nursery education. The development of a child is apparent when he or she attends nursery school. That is not merely my view; it is the view of many parents. I have had the opportunity to witness that development.
A study was undertaken at Sheffield university, which indicated that a person who had attended a nursery school had an opportunity that was more or less equal to that enjoyed by someone who went to a public school. The study revealed that that was the result when both persons started their working lives. The study took into account all the facets of attending a nursery school and a public school—the education of mind and body.
I applaud the Secretary of State's statement on special provision in existing schools. There are education authorities that have space within their junior schools that could be used to offer the special provision to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred. In many instances authorities have refused to make that provision, and facilities for nursery education have not been made available. I do not want secondhand nursery education, but there is the opportunity for progressive authorities to make provision.
I have discussed these matters with the education authority in my constituency. Those representing the authority said that toilet facilities were too high above the ground in their schools for children who would receive nursery education. I started school at about 2¾ years, coming up 3 years. That is why I have been a believer in children starting school at the age of 3. If the toilets were not low enough the children stood on two bricks. That did not detract from the education facilities.
I would like the Secretary of State to tell me what is his definition of a class. He tells us that decisions on nursery school closures are for him. Will he say what is a nursery school and what is a nursery class? Is a nursery class something that exists in a nursery school, or must it be a separate entity? It is important that we should define our terms. in order to prevent future argument. I am grateful for the Secretary of State's assurance that no charges will be made. This Government are already charging sufficient for various services.
I would prefer the legislation to have been left alone because that would have forced those authorities that are not committed to nursery education at least to take cognisance of it. My other fear is that under the Government's commitment to cut public spending, nursery education will suffer most severely. By far the largest part of any local authority budget is earmarked for education. I know what will happen when the excuse and opportunity to pull out is given to some local authorities. Nursery education will be one of the first sectors to suffer under the pressure for expenditure cuts. If we believe in nursery education it would be far better to proceed with existing legislation. That would be more beneficial for our education system.
For four and a half hours we have debated one of the most important subjects to come before the House for a considerable time. I want to place two facts on record. First, the Opposition have already registered their protest about the lateness of the hour at which these new clauses were introduced. It is an outrage that the House should be asked to debate these new clauses under a guillotine when the future of nursery education is at stake.
My second point is that the Government fought the general election with posters which could be seen throughout Great Britain, containing the slogan that education was not working. These new clauses are designed to prevent nursery education from working in the future.
One or two issues have become clear in the debate. If there was any confusion in England and Wales about the 1944 Education Act and whether local authorities regarded themselves as having a duty or a discretion, there was no confusion in Scotland. Clearly spelt out in the Education (Scotland) Act 1963 was the duty imposed on local authorities to provide nursery education. There was absolutely no doubt about the position in Scotland.
The reason why I highlight the difference is that the Secretary of State has interrupted this debate nearly half a dozen times and has asked my right hon. and hon. Friends whether they believed that local authorities in England and Wales had a duty or a discretion. I suspect that those interruptions were meant to be a clever device to try to portray the fact that—
Yes, it is a good question, and I am about to answer it. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) knows that that city has had its fair share of educational problems in the last three or four years. I know something of the educational system in Bath. However, I return to the Secretary of State, who posed a fair question. If he had any commitment to nursery education the Bill would entrench not the discretion of local authorities in this matter but their duty.
In entrenching the discretion of local authorities the Secretary of State gives the game away. That discretion specifically allows local authorities that do not wish to provide nursery education not to provide it. That covers the position of Oxfordshire county council and thus gets the right hon. Gentlemen's friends in that authority off the hook, apropos what was said by the Attorney-General in considering that case.
There is no commitment to nursery education here. These clauses entrench discretion. If there was any commitment by the Government, they would have entrenched the duty and not the discretion. The game is given away, because the purpose of these new clauses is to change the law. There is no doubt about that. The purpose of new clauses 1 and 2 is to change the law. It is a disgrace that under a guillotine those clauses should be introduced into the Bill to bring about major changes in the law, with all that that means for nursery education.
The Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher) made the point that education authorities would not be able to close nursery schools without the permission of the Secretary of State for Education and Science in England and Wales and the Secretary of State for Scotland. I hope that I have the postition right, namely, that the procedures that pertain to both primary and secondary schools will also relate to nursery schools on the question of closure. I understand that the proposals must be advertised, that parents have the right to object, that objections will be heard and that the authorities will have to submit the matter to the Secretary of State, who will ultimately decide the issue.
That is an improvement on the position as we understood it before the debate. I concede that to the Ministers. But the problem was highlighted of the nursery class within a primary school where that primary school is to be closed. Amendment No. 90 should be accepted by the Secretary of State because it would take care of the position where a nursery class is contained within a primary school and there is a proposal to close that school. In our view the Secretary of State should insist that the nursery facilties in that primary school should be replaced in suitable premises in the same locality before any further consideration is given to the question of closing the school.
I emphasise that this debate is not about playgroups. They do a marvellous job, and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland laid emphasis on them in what we considered an inadequate intervention. He stressed the value of playgroups. But this debate is about nursery education, not about playgroups. The Government will not get off the hook because Ministers call in aid the fact that playgroups do a good job. We want an assurance from the Secretary of State that he will consider—even if not tonight—amendment No. 90 before the Bill goes to another place. That amendment safeguards the position of the nursery class which operates within a primary school.
The other point that I wish to raise with the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, and through him the Secretary of State for Scotland, is that we have heard a great deal about the number of primary schools to be closed in Scotland. The Under-Secretary of State boasts that he will close down over 200 primary schools in Scotland.
That comment is completely unjustified. I made no such boast and I have never mentioned a number. The hon. Gentleman knows that the initiative for closing primary schools lies with local authorities, and that they require the permission of the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman should withdraw his remark.
The initiative may well lie with local authorities, but the decision lies with the Secretary of State. Whether he likes it or not, the Under-Secretary has given a clear impression throughout Scotland that the schools are overstaffed and that a number will have to close down. If the Minister wants evidence as to where and when he said that, I suggest that he reads the speech that he made in October at the Hamilton college of education to the parent-teacher council. He will read that he told that council that he was determined that a number of schools would close. He should remember his words and be sure of what he says.
I come to the proposal to close schools. I put it to the Secretary of State for Education and Science and to the Secretary of State for Scotland that if there is a need for nursery education in the area where it is proposed to close down a primary school, that school should not be closed but should be used to meet that need. A great deal has been said about the White Paper that was produced in 1972 by the Prime Minister, a former Secretary of State for Education and Science. Whether the present Secretary of State likes it or not, the tenor of the White Paper was a commitment to nursery education. I invite the House to read that White Paper and see the clear indication that the then Secretary of State was anxious to make it a duty to ensure that nursery education would be freely available.
I was grateful to the Secretary of State for Education and Science and to the Under-Secretary for the indication that it is not proposed to charge for nursery education. I accept that statement at face value, and if that is the case there is no reason why both amendments should not be accepted. After all, it is clearly written into part I of the Education (Scotland) Act 1962 that
junior colleges under the management of an education authority shall be without payment of fees".
If in 1962 it was accepted to be a good idea to write into legislation that we should not charge for that service, surely in 1980 it is not such a bad idea to adopt the same procedure and accept both amendments. That will make clear the fact that no charges will be made.
Even the Secretary of State must admit that the argument in favour of nursery education in this debate has been won hands down by Opposition Members. Indeed, a number of Conservative Members, particularly the hon. Members for Bath and for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), have made speeches which indicate that they should be in our Lobby tonight. I do not know how several other Conservative Members can bring themselves to vote for these new clauses. In their speeches they showed a clear commitment to nursery education. The hon. Member for Bath was particularly unhappy with the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Secretary of State will make him happier when he winds up the debate. However, I suspect that he and some of his hon. Friends will be led naturally into our Lobby rather than into the Government Lobby.
Let me say again that what is at stake tonight is the future of nursery education. It is a most outrageous action for any Government to introduce these proposals in a slip-shod way into a Bill when, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) said, they are about to undermine the whole fabric of nursery education. That is why I have no hesitation in urging my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the new clauses. Even more important, I appeal to Conservative Members with progressive thoughts on education to join us in the Lobby. They may be striking a blow against their Government, but it will be a small blow when compared with the major blow that will be struck at nursery education. They will have to decide whether to support the Government's cuts in public expenditure at the expense of the weakest in the community.
As my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire said, the smaller they are the harder the Government hits them. Conservative Members must decide whether they believe that the Government's monitory and economic policy should be exercised at the expense of Britain's three and four-year-olds, or whether education is more important. I suspect that in their heart of hearts they believe that education is more important, and I hope that they will join us in the Lobby.
The tenor of the argument that was put by several of my hon. Friends and myself was that the clauses do not make a scrap of difference to the provision of nursery education. Of course, we are in favour or nursery education, but there will not be more nursery schools until there are more resources to pay for them. That is the point. The clause clarifies the situation. I argued that it did not need clarifying, anyway.
How I wish that were true! The truth of the matter is that the clauses radically change the situation. The hon. Member for Bath is even more naïve than I appreciated. If he believes that his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State comes here to incur the wrath of the House over these two new clauses because they do not mean anything, he has a great deal to learn in parliamentary terms. The clauses mean a great deal. The reason why I make the point about the number of primary schools which the Government are determined to close is that there is a golden opportunity to do a great deal for nursery education without necessarily incurring the massive amount of resources which the hon. Member for Bath seems to believe are necessary.
I am content to rest my argument on what I have said and what has been said by right hon. and hon. Friends who have brought their expert knowledge to the subject. I hope that even at this late hour the Secretary of State will see the wisdom of what we have been saying and withdraw the new clauses. If he refuses to withdraw them, I invite the House to vote them down.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the inadequate brief intervention by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and in view of the differences between the legislation in Scotland, on the one hand, and England and Wales on the other, will the Solicitor-General for Scotland make an authoritative statement about the legal aspects of the matter, now that he is making one of his infrequent visits to the Chamber?
With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly to the debate. I know that the hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) would like to leave some time to debate the next clause. The hon. Member seemed unsure of what I was saying about sub-amendment (a), although the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) accepted it. The fact is that it is totally otiose, because the law already provides in the Education Act 1944 that:
No fees shall be charged in respect of admission to any school maintained by a local education authority…or in respect of the education provided in any such school.
If there were any question of charging, I should have to bring amending legislation to the House. However, I have anounced that I do not intend to charge, and the present law does not allow me to do so.
The second point that the hon. Gentleman made, which was also made by the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) was about the reasons why the clauses came to the House at the time and in the way they have done. I thought it much better to table the clauses at this stage, where they could be debated on Report. The alternative would have been to have taken them into a guillotined Bill in Committee. In that way, they might not have been discussed at all. Then, I should have been much more open to attack than by bringing them in at Report stage, where they can be voted upon on the Floor of the House and where we can agree to extend the matter by another two hours.
My third point is that I have accepted all along that I am changing the law. As far as England and Wales are concerned, the law makes it clear that in future there shall merely be a power rather than a duty to provide education for those under 5. I am changing the law so that it becomes as people have always believed it to be. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. McKay), because he had the frankness to admit that he had always believed, and been advised, that there was no statutory duty. He also had the kindness and frankness to appreciate my remarks about charging.
I must turn to the speech by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery). Frankly, I was appalled at what he said. I remember the time when he came to my room with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) and one other person. They argued that I should not agree to charge for education for childen under 5. Secondly, they argued that I should consider turning the discretionary power into a duty The hon. Member for Hillsborough put the case. However, when I specifically asked him, he stood up and said that he had always believed that there was a duty. I am bound to say that that does not accord with my recollection of the conversation.
To prove his case, the hon. Member then chose to call into account the leading article in The Times Educational Supplementof last week. I totally agree that the article is a clear attack on me and on the Bill. The hon. Member said that that proved that The Times Educational Supplement believed also that there was a duty. The Times Educational Supplement states—I take the words that the hon. Member used against me—that:
The crowning irony of this miserable Bill is that it has to be amended to diminish the 1944 Education Act nursery school provision. Mr. Carlisle can hardly be blamed for this. Until Oxfordshire went mad everybody had supposed that LEAs had discretion in regard to local nursery education.
The hon. Member for Hillsborough said that he had believed that it was a statutory duty despite the deputation that he brought to me. He also claimed that The Times Educational Supplementheld that view. On what basis does he say that? He bases his claim on a headline on the front page that announces that the statutory duty was to be changed into a power. The previous week The Times Educational Supplement had said that the Department agreed that a statutory duty existed.
Despite what the right hon. Gentleman says, I did believe what I said I believed. We can dispute that for ever. However, on the front of the Educational Supplement it says,
Nursery Law To Be Changed.
Underneath it says, "Statutory Duty Will Go." That is what I quoted. I did not say that it had said that in the editorial. That is on the front page.
The Times Educational Supplement rightly reported the effect of my clause. The law was to be changed to remove a statutory duty. I had publicly stated that it was a statutory duty. The hon. Member for Hillsborough quoted at length from the leading article. He read the heading,
A bad Bill which will positively harm education.
He referred to the comment about "this miserable provision". He said that it confirmed his conviction that it was a duty. However, the editor clearly said,
Until Oxfordshire went mad, everybody had supposed that the LEAs had discretion in regard to local nursery education.
With great respect, the hon. Gentleman must not deliberately mislead the House in that way.
I appreciate and respect the arguments of the hon. Members for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short), and Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor). In fairness, the hon. Member for Eton and Slough resigned from the Department of Education and Science as a result of reductions in expenditure on education. I also appreciated the speeches of the hon. Members for Penistone (Mr. McKay) and Thurrock (Dr. McDonald). They have a firm belief in the importance of nursery education. However, the hon. Member for Thurrock must not overdo it. She should not suggest that the Labour Party has a great record and that we have done badly.
The hon. Lady said with great pride that between 1974 and 1978 the Labour Party had put such emphasis on nursery education that it had spent £51 million capital. She did not say that they inherited—as I pointed out in my first speech—the plans of my right hon. Friend—now Prime Minister—that were set out in the White Paper of 1972. What did it do with those plans? I quote:
1974–75 capital expenditure proposed £21½ million.
1975–76 capital proposed £17.2 million.
1976–77 capital proposed £9.2 million.
1977–78 capital proposed £2.7 million.
1978–79 capital proposed £4 million and
1979–80 £4 million.
She said that when the Labour Party had been in power it had shown such confidence in the importance of nursery
education that it had managed to spend £51 million. As I said before, she really means that the Labour Government cut the programme by half, over a period of two years, and by two-thirds in the following year.
I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has listened with such inconsistency. First, I made it plain that I did not think that the previous Labour Government had done all that they should have done for nursery education. In spite of that, I pointed out that there had been an increase in the number of places. I listed those numbers. Although I pointed out that about £50 million had been made available to the nursery building programme, I was at pains to point out that numerous local education authorities, such as Avon, did not take up that allocation—particularly Tory local education authorities. Avon did not take up any of its allocation during the five-year period. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should not take part of what I said, without taking the whole.
The hon. Lady specifically made the point that the numbers had increased. She said that £51 million had been provided, as if that had been a major advance by her party. I say to the hon. Member for Thurrock, and to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East—who spoke of the surge ahead in nursery education as a result of the Prime Minister's White Paper—that we were, of course, committed at that stage to an attempt to put the Plowden report into effect within 10 years. When the Labour Party came into power in 1974, it no doubt wished to continue with that. However, the resources were not available then, nor have they been made available.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) is right. Whether we have an unenforceable duty on the statute book—as I believe it is—or whether we are honest and admit that it is the power that we believed it to have been, that will not have any effect on the rate of progress towards the type of nursery education that we desire. I do not propose to hold out great hopes; but it is not the wording of the Bill but the resources available to local authorities that will have most effect.
In a restrained and confined financial situation, I have assumed in the rate support grant for the years 1980–81, that there will be an expenditure equivalent to that in the previous year. However, I cannot ensure that the money is used in that way. I have provided for additional expenditure for building.
For the sake of argument, we shall accept that everyone understood that there had never been a duty, that there had only been a "responsibility" and that awareness of a statutory duty has occured only since the right hon. and learned Gentleman received the advice of the Attorney-General. If he is given the choice between removing any vestige of duty and imposing a clear-cut duty—even within the constraints of limited resources—why has he chosen the former course of deserting the interests of pre-school education?
I was coming to that point. Resources are the reason. At present resources are not available to carry out the existing statutory duty. Although he may not have intended to, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) summed the matter up for me, as did the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan). The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said that he could not understand why I did not leave it as a duty. He believed that any authority that was genuinely trying to do what it could within the resources available should have no difficulty over duty. I question that assumption.
Since the Haringey case last year, we know that parents can bring an action against a local education authority to enforce a duty. If, for instance, the county of Northumberland—I take Northumberland because it covers the hon. Gentleman's constituency—says in court that it is genuinely trying to do what it can within the resources available, that is no answer to a claim for breach of statutory duty.
It is preferable to come clean with the House. I do not believe that at present it is possible to enforce that statutory duty. It should be converted into a power. We should not muddle on on the premise that a group of parents may decide to test the law, for perfectly legitimate reasons, and as a consequence, find that various coun- ties are not meeting their statutory obligations. I should then have to concede that this Government and the previous Government have not given them sufficient resources to do so.
Finally, with regard to the Oxfordshire question, I cannot say what will happen about a particular claim that may come to the Department with regard to a section 13 procedure. I believe that the hon. Member for Eton and Slough suggested that I was set upon the destruction of nursery education. If that is so, why should I put in a provision that local education authorities that have nursery schools cannot close them without coming to me? I need not have done that, and local authorities could merely have closed those nursery schools.
No. I believe that amendment No. 90 was referred to by the hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth. In considering closures, attention must be paid to alternative provisions in the area and to what will happen to the children. However, I do not accept the straitjacket of amendment No. 90.
I believe that most hon. Members would like to see an extension of nursery education over the years.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman used what I had said to build a shaky case. If he is not intent or hell-bent on closing nursery schools, why is he saying that any closures will have to come to him? Will he refuse to close certain nursery schools, bearing in mind the scanty provision that exists?
Requiring closures to come to me will act as a deterrent. The procedure will have to be gone through. Other views will be considered, and the case will be judged on its merits. Had I intended merely to close all nursery schools I should not have put forward the provision, and local authorities would be free to close nursery schools under the other provisions.
I believe that the degree of provision will depend on resources available. Local authorities in difficult times must put first and foremost protection of compulsory schooling for children aged from 5 to 16 years. In the rate support grant proposals for the year 1980–81, and in my speech earlier, I indicated that I very much hoped that local authorities would continue to be able to provide substantial facilities for under-fives. I should be far happier to be in a position to invite them to increase those facilities, but in the present financial situation I cannot.
|Division No. 170]||AYES||[7.55 pm|
|Adley, Robert||Dorrell, Stephen||Kaberry, Sir Donald|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Dover, Denshore||Kimball, Marcus|
|Alexander, Richard||du Cann, Rt Hon Edward||King, Rt Hon Tom|
|Amery, Rt Hon Julian||Dunn, Robert (Dartford)||Kitson, Sir Timothy|
|Ancram, Michael||Durant, Tony||Knight, Mrs Jill|
|Arnold, Tom||Dykes, Hugh||Knox, David|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Eden, Rt Hon Sir John||Lamont, Norman|
|Atkins, Robert (Preston North)||Eggar, Timothy||Lang Ian|
|Atkinson David (B'mouth, East)||Elliott, Sir William||Langford-Holt, Sir John|
|Baker, Kenneth (St. Marylebone)||Fairbairn, Nicholas||Latham, Michael|
|Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)||Fairgrieve, Russell||Lawerence, Ivan|
|Banks, Robert||Faith, Mrs Sheila||Lee, John|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Farr, John||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Bell, Sir Ronald||Fell, Anthony||Lester, Jim (Beeston)|
|Bendall, Vivian||Fenner, Mrs Peggy||Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)|
|Benyon, Thomas (Abingdon)||Finsberg, Geoffrey||Llyod, Ian (Havant & Waterloo)|
|Benyon, W. (Buckingham)||Fisher, Sir Nigel||Llyod, Peter (Fareham)|
|Best, Keith||Fletcher, Alexander (Edinburgh N)||Loveridge, John|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Fletcher-Cooke, Charles||Luce, Richard|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Fookes, Miss Janet||Lyell, Nicholas|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Forman, Nigel||McCusker, H.|
|Blackburn, John||Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Blaker, Peter||Fox, Marcus||MacGregor, John|
|Body, Richard||Fraser, Peter (South Angus)||MacKay, John (Argyll)|
|Bonsor Sir Nicholas||Fry, Peter,||McNair-Wilson, Michael (Newbury)|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Gardiner George (Reigate)||McNair-Wilson, Patrick (New Forest)|
|Bottomley peter (woolwich west)||Gardner, Edward (South Fylde)||McQuarrie, Albert|
|Bowden, Andrew||Garel-Jones, Tristan||Madel David|
|Boyson, Dr Rhodes||Gilmour, Rt Hon sir Ian||Major, John|
|Bradford, Rev. R.||Glyn, Dr Alan||Marland, Paul|
|Braine, Sir Bernard||Goodland, Alastair||Marlow, Tony|
|Bright, Graham||Gorst, John||Marsall Michael (Arundel)|
|Brinton, Tim||Gow, Ian||Marten, Neil (Banbury)|
|Brittan, Leon||Gower, Sir Raymond||Mates, Michael|
|Brocklebank-Fowler, Christopher||Grant, Anthony (Harrow C)||Mather, Carol|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||Gray, Hamish||Maude, Rt Hon Angus|
|Brotherton, Michael||Greenway, Harry||Mawhinney, Dr Brain|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'thorpe)||Grieve, Percy||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St Edmunds)||Mellor, David|
|Bruce-Gardyne, John||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Meyer, Sir Anthony|
|Bryan, Sir Paul||Grist, Ian||Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove & Redditch)|
|Buck, Antony||Grylls, Michael||Mills, Iain (Meriden)|
|Budgen, Nick||Gummer, John Selwyn||Mills, Peter (West Devon)|
|Bulmer, Esmond||Hamilton, Hon Archie (Eps'm&Ew'll)||Miscampbell, Norman|
|Burden, F.A..||Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)||Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)|
|Butcher, John||Hampson, Dr Keith||Moate, Roger|
|Butler, Hon Adam||Hannam, John||Molyneaux, James|
|Cadbury, Jocelyn||Haselhurst, Alan||Monro, Hector|
|Carlisle, John (Luton West)||Hawksley, Warren||Montgomery, Fergus|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Hayhoe, Barney||Moore, John|
|Carlisle, Rt Hon Mark (Runcorn)||Heddle, John||Morris, Michael (Northampton, Sth)|
|Chalker, Mrs Lynda||Henderson, Barry||Morrison, Hon Charles (Devizes)|
|Channon, Paul||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael||Morrison, Hon Peter (City of Chester)|
|Chapman, Sydney||Hicks, Robert||Mudd, David|
|Clark, Hon Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.||Murphy, Christopher|
|Clark, Sir William (Croydon South)||Hill, James||Myles, David|
|Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Grantham)||Neale, Gerrard|
|Cockeram, Eric||Holland, Phillip (Carlton)||Needham, Richard|
|Colvin, Michael||Hordern, Peter||Nelson, Anthony|
|Cope, John||Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)||Neubert, Michael|
|Cormack, Patrick||Hunt, David (Wirral)||Newton, Tony|
|Corrie, John||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)||Onslow, Cranley|
|Costain, A.. P.||Hurd, Hon Douglas||Osborn, John|
|Cranborne, Viscount||Irvine, Charles (Cheltenham)||Page, Rt Hon Sir R. Graham|
|Critchely, Julian||Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick||Page, Richard (SW Hertfordshire)|
|Crouch, David||Johnson Smith, Geoffrey||Parkinson, Cecil|
|Dean, Paul (North Somerset)||Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Perris, Matthew|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||Joseph, Rt Hon sir Keith||Patten, Christopher (Bath)|
|Patten, John (Oxford)||Shersby, Michael||Trippier, David|
|Pattle, Geoffrey||Silvester, Fred||Trotter, Neville|
|Pawsey, James||Sims, Roger||van Straubenzee, W. R.|
|Percival, Sir Ian||Skeet, T. H. H.||Vaughan, Dr Gerard|
|Peyton, Rt Hon John||Smith, Dudley (War, and Leam'ton)||Viggers, Peter|
|Pink, R. Bonner||Speed, Keith||Waddington, David|
|Pollock, Alexander||Speller, Tony||Wakeham, John|
|Porter, George||Spence, John||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch (S Down)||Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)||Walker, Bill (Perth & E Perthshire)|
|Prentice, Rt Hon Reg||Spicer, Michael (S Worcestershire)||Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek|
|Price, David (Eastleigh)||Sproat, Iain||Waller, Gary|
|Prior, Rt Hon James||Squire, Robin||Walters, Dennis|
|Proctor, K. Harvey||Stainton, Keith||Ward, John|
|Raison, Timothy||Stanbrook, Ivor||Warren, Kenneth|
|Rathbone, Tim||Stanley, John||Watson, John|
|Rees, Peter (Dover and Deal)||Steen, Anthony||Wells, John (Maidstone)|
|Rees-Davies, W. R.||Stevens, Martin||Wells, Bowen (Hert'rd & Stev'nage)|
|Renton, Tim||Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)||Wheeler, John|
|Rhodes James, Robert||Stewart, John (East Renfrewshire)||Whitney, Raymond|
|Ridley, Hon Nicholas||Stokes, John||Wickenden, Keith|
|Ridsdale, Julian||Stradling Thomas, J.||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Rifkind, Malcolm||Tapsell, Peter||Wilkinson, John|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conway)||Taylor, Robert (Croydon NW)||Williams, Delwyn (Montgomery)|
|Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)||Tebbit, Norman||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Rost, Peter||Temple-Morris, Peter||Wolfson, Mark|
|Sainsbury, Hon Timothy||Thomas, Rt Hon Peter (Hendon S)||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|St. John Stevas, Rt Hon Norman||Thompson, Donald||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Scott, Nicholas||Thorne, Neil (Ilford South)|
|Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)||Thornton, Malcolm||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Shelton, William (Streatham)||Townend, John (Bridlington)||Mr. Spencer Le Marchant and|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)||Lord James Douglas Hamilton.|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge-Br'hills)|
|Abse, Leo||Davies, I for (Gower)||Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith|
|Adams, Allen||Davis, Clinton (Hackney Central)||Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy|
|Allaun, Frank||Davis, Terry (B'rm'ham, Stechford)||Haynes, Frank|
|Alton, David||Deakins, Eric||Heffer, Eric S.|
|Anderson, Donald||Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Hogg, Norman (E Dunbartonshire)|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Dempsey, James||Holland, Stuart (L'beth, Vauxhall)|
|Armstrong, Rt Hon Ernest||Dewar, Donald||Home Robertson, John|
|Ashley, Rt Hon Jack||Dixon, Donald||Homewood, William|
|Ashton, Joe||Dobson, Frank||Hooley, Frank|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||Dormand, Jack||Horam, John|
|Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)||Douglas, Dick||Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H)|
|Beith, A.. J.||Douglas-Mann, Bruce||Huckfield, Les|
|Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood||Dubs, Alfred||Hughes, Mark (Durham)|
|Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)||Duffy, A. E. P.||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen North)|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Dunn, James A. (Liverpool, Kirkdale)||Hughes, Roy (Newport)|
|Booth, Rt Hon Albert||Eadie, Alex||Janner, Hon Greville|
|Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Eastham, Ken||Jay, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur (M'brough)||Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE)||John, Brynmor|
|Bradley, Tom||Ellis, Raymond (NE Derbyshire)||Johnson, James (Hull West)|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)||Johnson, Walter (Derby South)|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||English, Michael||Johnston, Russell (Iverness)|
|Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)||Ennals, Rt Hon David||Jones, Barry (East Flint)|
|Brown, Ronald W. (Hackney S)||Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)|
|Brown, Ron (Edinburgh, Leith)||Evans, John (Newton)||Kaufman St Hon Gerald|
|Buchan, Norman||Ewing, Harry||Kerr, Russell|
|Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)||Faulds, Andrew||Kilroy-Silk, Robert|
|Campbell, Ian||Field, Frank||Kinnock, Neil|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Fitch, Alan||Lambie, David|
|Canavan, Dennis||Flannery, Martin||Lamborn, Harry|
|Cant, R. B.||Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Lamond James|
|Carmichael, Neil||Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Forrester, John||Leighton, Ronald|
|Cartwright, John||Foster, Derek||Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & slough)|
|Clark, Dr David (South Shields)||Foulkes, George||Lewis, Arthur (Newham North West)|
|Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)||Fraser, John (Lambeth, Norwood)||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)|
|Cohen, Stanley||Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald||Litherland, Robert|
|Coleman, Donald||Freud, Clement||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.||Garrett, John (Norwich S)||Lyon, Alexander(York)|
|Conlan, Bernard||Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)||Lyons, Edward (Bradford West)|
|Cook, Robin F.||George, Bruce||McCartney, Hugh|
|Cowans, Harry||Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||McDonald, Dr Oonagh|
|Cox, Tom (Wandsworth, Tooting)||Ginsburg, David||McElhone, Frank|
|Craigen, J. M. (Glasgow, Maryhill)||Golding, John||McKay, Allen (Penistone)|
|Crowther, J. S.||Gourlay, Harry||McKelvey, William|
|Cryer, Bob||Graham, Ted||MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Grant, George (Morpeth)||Maclennan, Robert|
|Cunningham, George (Islington S)||Grant, John (Islington C)||McMahon, Andrew|
|Cunningham, Dr John (Whitehaven)||Hamilton, James (Bothwell)||McMillan, Tom (Glasgow, Central)|
|Davidson, Arthur||Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||McNally, Thomas|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||McNamara, Kevin|
|McWilliam, John||Race, Reg||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton West)|
|Magee, Bryan||Richardson, Jo||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Marks, Kenneth||Roberts, Allan (Bootle)||Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)|
|Marshall, David (Gl'sgow, Shettles'n)||Roberts, Ernest (Hackney North)||Thomas, Dr Roger (Carmarthen)|
|Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)||Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)||Thorne, Stan (Preston South)|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester South)||Robertson, George||Tilley, John|
|Martin, Michael (Gl'gow, Springb'rn)||Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW)||Torney, Tom|
|Maxton, John||Rodgers, Rt Hon William||Urwin, Rt Hon Tom|
|Maynard, Miss Joan||Rooker, J. W.||Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.|
|Mikardo, Ian||Roper, John||Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)|
|Millan, Rt Hon Bruce||Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)||Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley)|
|Miller, Or M. S. (East Kilbride)||Ross. Stephen (Isle ol Wight)||Walker, Rt Hon Harold (Doncaster)|
|Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen)||Rowlands, Ted||Weetch, Ken|
|Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wythenshawe)||Ryman, John||Wellbeloved, James|
|Morris, Rt Hon Charles (Openshaw)||Sandelson, Neville||Welsh, Michael|
|Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)||Sever, John||White, Frank R. (Bury & Radcliffe)|
|Moyle, Rt Hon Roland||Sheerman, Barry||White, James (Glasgow, Pollok)|
|Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert (A'ton-u-L)||Whitehead, Phillip|
|Newens, Stanley||Short, Mrs Renée||Whitlock, William|
|Ogden, Eric||Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)||Wigley, Dafydd|
|O'Halloran, Michael||Silverman, Julius||Willey, Rt Hon Frederick|
|O'Neill, Martin||Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Smith, Rt Hon J. (North Lanarkshire)||Wilson, William (Coventry SE)|
|Palmer, Arthur||Soley, Clive||Winnick, David|
|Park, George||Spearing, Nigel||Woodall, Alec|
|Parker, John||Spriggs, Leslie||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Parry, Robert||Stallard, A. W.||Wright, Sheila|
|Pavitt, Laurie||Stewart, Rt Hon Donald (W Isles)||Young, David (Bolton East)|
|Pendry, Tom||Stoddart, David|
|Penhaligon, David||Stott, Roger||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)||Strang, Gavin||Mr. George Morton and Mr. James Tinn.|
|Prescott, John||Straw, Jack|
|Price, Christopher (Lewisham West)||Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley|