Nursery Schools and Special Schools

Part of Orders of the Day — EDUCATION (No. 2) BILL – in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 12th February 1980.

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Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Bolton West 9:45 pm, 12th February 1980

I will speak briefly on this amendment not because it is unimportant but because there are many hon. Members on both sides of the House who wish to speak on amendment No. 123.

The amendment seeks to ensure that the provisions in clauses 6, 7 and 8—the clauses relating to parental preference, the appeals system and to information about schools—should apply at the discretion of the local education authority to nursery schools and special schools as well as to those already covered by the provisions of these clauses.

Many hon. Members wish to speak on the issue of special schools. The Opposition feel that as far as possible special schools should be treated as ordinary schools. We do not see why the provisions of clauses 6, 7 and 8 should not apply to special schools. We accept that different arrangements may be, and often are, made about admissions. These clauses do not relate simply to admissions to special schools and the criteria laid down for admission. The clauses relate to the position of parents and the degree to which they can exercise influence or choice about the special school to which their child may be allocated and the information to which such a parent is entitled about that school. We see no reason why that information should not be forthcoming to the parents and we believe, as do many organisations outside the House such as the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children, that the way in which the Government have presented the matter discriminates against children and parents of children in special schools. We cannot see any hardships that would ensue if the Government accepted our proposals.

10.15 pm

In a recent debate, the Under-Secretary referred to the Warnock report. He said that the Government would make a statement about their position in relation to that report. We believe that the amendment is in line with the spirit of the report. The amendment would allow special schools and children in those schools to be treated in almost the same way as children in ordinary schools. We hope that the Minister will accept the principle of our amendment.

The clause and the amendment also relate to nursery schools. We discussed the subject briefly in Committee. At that time, some interesting facts emerged. At times, the Minister surprised the Committee with indications about possible appeals for certain under-fives. He indicated that there would be different rights for parents of different 4-year-olds in different circumstances. For example, the parents of a 4-year-old child who were asking for a place at an infant school for that rising-five would have a right of appeal under clause 7 if the application were turned down.

We welcome the extension of the appeal system to that extent, but it creates an anomaly. The Secretary of State spent some time this afternoon telling the House that it was his duty to clarify the law and clear up anomalies. However, by their approach to this question, the Government are creating another anomaly. The 4-year-old whose parents wish him to go to an infant school as a rising-five will have a right of appeal if the place is refused but a 4-year-old whose parents wish him to go to a nursery school will have no right of appeal. While many parents would welcome the admission of their 4-year-old into an infant school, others believe that under-fives can be taught more effectively and appropriately at nursery school. That is one difficulty that the Minister has not faced.

In view of the new clause relating to the provision of nursery education that was passed today, and because of our fears about the way in which the new clause will work in practice and the reduction in available nursery school places, we believe that it is more important that the subject of clause 8, relating to information, should be made to apply as widely as possible and should relate to nursery schools. We believe that there is a possibility that many local authorities will reduce the number of nursery school places. It is therefore even more important that parents have a right to know the basis on which allocations are made.

Those are important points. In Committee the Minister was not particularly forthcoming. Indeed, some of his remarks added to the confusion and the anomalies. I hope that he will clarify the position. I also hope that he will indicate his sympathy towards the problems that he is creating for children in special schools and for their parents. I hope that he will take action to clear up the anomaly of the treatment of 4-year-olds in infant and primary schools, and those in nursery schools. We need some re- assurance about the Minister's attitude towards the issues that we have raised.