The purpose of the two new clauses is to encourage projects related to nursery, remedial and special education. If my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will deal with new clause 5 and special and remedial education.
I wish to speak briefly about nursery education. More than 10 years after the Plowden report and the White Paper on nursery provision, we are still a very long way from the goal of places being available for all those who want them for their children. The White Paper, I believe, was issued when the present Prime Minister was Secretary of State for Education and Science. It said that the Government's aim was that, within the next 10 years, nursery education should become available without charge, within the limits estimated by Plowden, to three and four-year-olds whose parents wished them to benefit from it.
The Plowden estimate was that provision would be needed for 90 per cent. of four-year-olds and 50 per cent. of three-year-olds. The sad truth is that today places are available for slightly more than 40 per cent. of all three and four-year-olds. So we have not made the progress in 10 years that the Prime Minister envisaged when she was Secretary of State.
May we know what age range we are talking about? The new clause refers to "nursery schools or classes". Does that mean that the 20 per cent. of expenditure referred to would be made available for all three to five-year-olds, or is it slanted more towards four-year-olds and rising-fives?
It is the whole range—three to five-year-olds.
Unfortunately, Plowden's observation is still true today, that
whether a mother has even a bare chance of securing a nursery place for her child depends on the accident of where she lives".
Indeed, the cuts made by some Conservative local education authorities in nursery provision in the past few years have made it even more important for mothers and fathers to take good care where they live and have their children.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will argue that a higher proportion of under-fives than ever before have some form of schooling. I am sure that I have heard that argument used by Conservative Ministers. But the truth is, as the Secretary of State knows because he has had to make the decisions, that the rate of expansion has slowed to a snail's pace compared with the record of the last Labour Government. What is more, the Government's plans, in Cmnd. 8789, are for a decline in the proportion to a little over 36 per cent. in 1985–86. That will be lower than it was in 1978–79.
We believe that the education support grants should be used, first, to encourage the conversion of surplus primary school accommodation for nursery schools or classes; secondly, to encourage local education authorities with a poor record of provision; thirdly, to encourage the establishment of nursery centres. The Secretary of State will know that those centres are established to meet the needs of parents and children on a flexible basis throughout the normal working day and that they provide children with a caring environment which also meets their educational needs. The nursery centres can also play a coordinating role and provide co-operative support for other pre-school provisions. Therefore, I should like the Secretary of State seriously to consider the new clause and the way in which we think the money should be spent.
We believe that nursery education is vital because all children benefit socially and emotionally. That is especially important for those who come from deprived homes. That is the first argument. The second argument is that we think that pre-schooling of that nature enables children to get more out of their primary schools and makes them more effective pupils. There is also an important benefit for parents, in that there is child care provision for working parents and a breathing space is provided for mothers who want to stay at home.
I hope that the Secretary of State will look carefully at the new clause on nursery education. After my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish has spoken, I hope that he will consider the issue of using special grants for special schools and remedial pupils.
I am interested that new clause 3 and new clause 5 have been bracketed together. However, the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) talked only about new clause 3 and left it to later speakers to discuss new clause 5. New clause 5 deals with the compulsory years of education and new clause 3 does not. There is an interesting mix between the two. Given that we all regard the education service as a national scheme, locally administered, if new clause 3 were passed, it would present many problems for local education authorities in view of the constraints on their spending levels.
The new clause opens up a short debate about what we should do about pre-school education—nursery school education—given the present financial climate and the constraints on local education authority spending. I was a little surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not mention the valuable role of pre-school playgroups. They are playing an increasingly important role and in many ways provide nursery education that local education authorities cannot provide, not because they do not want to provide it but because they do not have the financial wherewithal so to do.
I agree about the importance of playgroups, but we need more evidence than has been provided on the levels of provision of playgroups before we use them as an argument about inadequate nursery provision in other areas. We must admit that qualified nursery teachers are not involved in playgroups, which do not necessarily meet the educational needs of the children. That is the problem about relying on playgroups for the main provision.
As in most educational matters, the position is patchy. In some parts of the country playgroups are doing as good a job as nursery schools and in others they are not.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the use of surplus places in primary schools, both urban and rural, by nursery schools. It would help if local education authorities let preschool playgroup associations use those surplus places when the local education authority could not provide nursery education. There is an indifferent, sometimes almost hostile, attitude of some education officials, chiefs and bureaucrats to the pre-school playgroup associations. They should not only help in the use of the surplus places but there should be closer co-operation between county social service departments and education departments to see whether local education authorities, social services and pre-school playgroup associations can go some way towards meeting the spirit of new clause 3.
The sum of money envisaged in the Bill is—as the Secretary of State has said many times—not large. The Bill will bring about only a small step in curriculum development. Although I accept that the Opposition are bound to float their own ideas and fly their own kites, I cannot agree that the objects referred to in new clause 3 should be high on the list of priorities for using the money. Many matters such as curriculum development, in-service training and re-training, should take higher priority.
When the Bill has become law and the education support grants have been used to bring about certain developments, the DES and the local education authorities must look about for other sources of finance which could be used to further the objects of the Bill.
Already, two and a half months after the youth training scheme took off, we find that the Manpower Services Commission is underspending on that provision. I believe that there will be an Aladdin's cave of money that the Manpower Services Commission has. I am anxious that the Secretary of State should have the key to the cave and put some of that money into the education service. We shall then be able to do many of the things that we have talked about in connection with the Bill, and which ought to be done. However, given the constraints upon local education authorities, I cannot support new clause 3.
I hope that we will recognise that in many areas preschool playgroups are doing a very good job in difficult circumstances. It should be the duty of local education authorities, as far as is practicable, to help the development of pre-school playgroup associations. They could help them by the provision of surplus school places, halls and so on. I do not disagree with the spirit of the amendment — I should like to see more nursery provisions—but we must face reality. The pressure on the LEAs is so great that other matters, such as curriculum development and in-service training, must take priority over the objectives of new clause 3.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to support my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice). As president of the Campaign for Nursery Education, I campaigned for years in this cause before I came to the House. I am distressed that we have made so little progress. When the right hon. Lady the present Prime Minister produced her education White Paper, I thought, like my hon. Friend, that the golden age of nursery education had arrived. I was such a new Member of Parliament that I thought that words printed in White Papers meant something. I thought that there was to be a great leap forward in providing nursery education for children aged from three to five. However, progress has been poor.
The suggestion of the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) that we should now go overboard for pre-school playgroups confuses the issue. The two types of provision are in no way comparable. Good preschool playgroups are usually run by former nursery teachers—by trained women who have lost their jobs or who, because of the cuts in nursery education, have not had the opportunity to work. Furthermore, very often playgroups are run in very inadequate premises.
I want the best for the three to five-year-olds at the beginning of their school life. We want the best ratio of pupils to nursery teacher, the best equipment, and the injection of the most imaginative ideas into nursery education. I hope that the Minister who replies on the clause will feel able to offer some encouragement.
We live in a multiracial society now, and nursery education, in bringing together young children of different races. as well as different sexes, in a happy, relaxed and constructive environment, is of inestimable value to society.
The child who has been to nursery school is a very confident young person by the time he or she arrives in the infant class at the age of five. That child is easily distinguished. All infant teachers will tell you that they know which children have attended nursery school. Those children have had the ability to develop their painting ability, singing and movement. It is a marvellous experience.
In our troubled society, it is more important than ever that children should learn to live together in peace and harmony. Nursery education can make a considerable contribution towards fulfilling that aim. Here we have an opportunity. We can afford it. We could use the space made available by under-utilisation of infant classes, and very little capital investment would be required. This is a marvellous time to develop nursery education with the resources that would be available under the new clause. I hope that the House will support the clause.
I endorse the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) on the importance of starting right at school. Without good nursery education, resources put into the education system later on will be wasted. The hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) said that when resources were scarce it would be difficult to justify putting money into nursery education. However, one of the arguments for experimentation in this area is that by experimenting we can see what the cost would be.
Many primary schools have one or two empty classrooms. The capital charges on those rooms have to be paid, whether or not they are occupied. The heating systems are usually integrated with those of the rest of the school. The classroom costs money whether it is used or not. The biggest cost is that of providing teaching. Some authorities have been developing part-time nursery education, for which a teacher would be supplied only in the morning. Salaries paid for part-time work are not very high when compared with unemployment benefit. A substantial number of trained primary school teachers, some of whom have also trained for nursery teaching, are unemployed at present, or are working outside teaching and would prefer to teach. Resources are available in the community, and with a very small amount of pump-priming money from the Government in experimental areas, it might well be possible to expand and develop nursery school provision.
Most hon. Members welcome the idea of playgroups, but are conscious that there are good ones and bad ones. I have spoken to many primary school teachers who point out that one pre-school playgroup in their catchment area is doing an excellent job, but that another one run by a different group of voluntary people is doing more damage than good, perhaps because it is pushing children to develop skills at too early a stage. The provision is patchy. It would be far better if we could replace the playgroups by state provision, or increase the supervision of them.
New clause 5 suggests using some of the money to encourage experiments in special schools and in remedial education. When I drafted the new clause, I should have included a reference to handicapped children in other schools, but on new clause 5 it is sufficient to ask the Government to give us some answers. We shall not wish to push new clause 5 to a vote.
The Warnock report was a worthwhile and useful document which demonstrated the need for the integration of handicapped children. We debated the Education Act 1981 at some length. I do not believe that its provisions divided the House. The House divided on the fact that the Government believed that by changing the legislation, but without providing extra resources, they would substantially alter the practice in the country. The Opposition argued strongly that if we were to make the Act work, there should be some more money. I confess that some local authorities have done remarkably well in implementing the Act without the resources. However, the areas to which I go complain continually that they could do far more if the resources were available. I hope that the Government will make it clear that they will use some of this experimental money to ensure that the high hopes engendered by the 1981 Act will be realised.
When we were trying to obtain a shopping list from the Government on this legislation, all we received was the reply that they hoped that a little of the money would be made available to introduce technology for the handicapped child in special schools or integrated into general schools. This is costly equipment, and the Government must study the costs carefully. The equipment is specialised and often has to be developed with the individual child in mind. It would be useful if the Government would tell us a little more about what they intend to do—whether they intend to give small grants to encourage the adaptation of equipment for individual children and its application.
I hope that the Government will give us a great deal of information tonight on the way in which they see such schemes developing because they raise hopes. Some of this technology will enable many children, particularly the physically handicapped, to learn in school without suffering too much from their handicaps.
I want to press the Government about what they will do to insure this expensive equipment. One or two special schools using computers and other special equipment are doing some excellent work, but the major problem is that that equipment is at risk from breakdowns and occasionally from vandalism.
On talking to teachers, one finds that their biggest worry is that they put a great deal of effort into developing the resources and the type of equipment that children need to use day after day when they suffer from severe educational handicap. When a piece of equipment is stolen or damaged the educational programme can be put at risk. They want a system that does not just insure the equipment but ensures that it can be replaced quickly. I understand that several schools have developed this type of equipment which has then gone missing for three or four weeks. Teaching programmes can be jeopardised. I hope that the Government can assure us that they are studying the problem of ensuring that this equipment is always available and is not missing because of breakdown or damage.
I should like to refer to an experiment in my old constituency of Stockport, North which was carried on by the Charnwood trust and by Mrs. Wyatt. She developed a nursery school in which about half the children who attended had no handicap while the other half were handicapped in some way. That experiment has been going on for almost 10 years, and has been successful in demonstrating the way in which handicapped children can be stimulated by being integrated with non-handicapped children. The non-handicapped children learn at nursery age to be supportive and helpful to those who are handicapped.
I hope that the Government will encourage that sort of experiment, which almost straddles these two new clauses. The work that has been done in Stockport by the Charnwood trust should be extended to other areas.
The next matter upon which I wish to press the Government is the remedial class. The Government have seen standards in schools fall because of the decrease in the number of special remedial classes available in primary schools. The number of schools that have lost the special remedial class has increased steadily because of the fall in the rolls. There is a strong case for the Government spending some of this money to try to provide special remedial teaching for small groups. It may no longer be viable to have a remedial class within a school because of the fall in rolls and the loss of staff, but there is a case for studying ways in which peripatetic teachers can be used to ensure that primary school children are given the first-class remedial teaching that has been lost.
I want to deal briefly with word blindness. It is sometimes referred to as dyslexia. I believe that one or two hon. Members know that it is a problem from which I suffer considerably. I am told that with the new computers, it is possible to have one's spelling corrected by the word processor. Strictly speaking, I believe that the word processor draws to one's attention the fact that the word one is attempting to use does not exist because incorrect spellings are not contained in its memory. That sounds attractive, but I am not sure that it will solve all the problems of the youngster who suffers from word blindness, because often it is not that he does not know how to spell the word but that he uses the wrong one. One must think of all the combinations of "there" and "here" and so on. It is easy to have a word that is in the dictionary, but still to spell it incorrectly.
I hope that the Government will study all the problems of dyslexia. Whether one accepts that it exists, there is a problem which some people prefer to refer to as word blindness. I hope that a little of the money will go for developing skills to teach youngsters how to read and write so that they are not handicapped by that inability in making educational progress.
I should like the Government to deal with the problem of maladjusted children. Normal schools have too often wanted to push out the awkward child to ensure that he is put into a special school. The spirit of Warnock with its idea of integration, made it clear that the maladjusted child should be catered for in the normal school. It means that far more work needs to be done on ways of integrating the child into the school to ensure that he can be contained and educated within the system. The younger maladjusted child may often have behaviour problems while the older child often exhibits that maladjustment in truancy.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I absolutely agree with what he says. Does that mean that he is unhappy, as I am, about sin bins and special units into which many children are being drafted from schools because of behavioural difficulties?
Yes. It seems to me that that is completely against the spirit of Warnock. It is utterly wrong to assume that because a child has a behaviour problem, he can be shunted out of the school and handed to someone else. Schools often do not accept that that is their failure. In the past, during my teaching experience, I occasionally noted a certain amount of glee among various teachers at the fact that they had managed to have a child excluded from a normal school and transferred to a school for the maladjusted. That should be the occasion for sadness in a school, and an admission that it has failed to cope with the problem.
In this area there is much to be argued in favour of experimentation and the school trying to cope. It is a little odd that many schools say they are firmly in favour of integrating the handicapped child yet at the same time they want a sin bin or some other special educational provision.
I hope it will be possible to look at ways in which the normal school can not only cope with and contain these children but start to educate them. Once the barrier is broken through and the children become enthusiastic and keen about the school, the behaviour problem can nearly always be solved and children can be educated. In this society we cannot afford to waste anyone's educational skills. In many instances the youngsters who are most maladjusted can benefit a great deal if they can come to terms with education.
I press the Minister in his reply to this group of amendments to state what experiments he has in mind. Even if the Minister cannot give us a guarantee that approximately 20 per cent. of the money will be spent in this way, I hope that at least the Government have some clear indications of how much money will be spent in this experimental area, not only on high technology for the handicapped, but on genuine experiments to ensure that the quality of education is improved for those who are physically and mentally handicapped in schools and occasionally maladjusted and unwilling to accept the opportunities that are offered to them.
I urge the Government to accept that much can be done by spending a little of the experimental money in the areas I have outlined. The Government must put more resources into special remedial education and nursery education if the educational standards of the whole country are to be raised and not just those of a few selected areas such as some hon. Members seem more enthusiastic to pursue.
I wish to support new clauses 3 and 5.
I shall deal first with new clause 3. Many years ago, when the Plowden report was published, it was studied by schools and educationists. Many new ideas emerged from the report. One idea was pre-school playgroups. Many other suggestions about primary education generally were examined. Pre-school playgroups were eagerly seized upon on a large scale as a way to avoid spending more money on nursery education. The people it was intended should run the pre-school playgroups were nobly motivated people who wanted to do the best they could. The financial provision was not sufficient for nursery education.
There is a fundamental difference between a pre-school playgroup and a nursery class or nursery school. The nursery class or nursery school has paid trained staff as well as nursery nurses and nursery teachers. As this staff costs a great deal of money, a device was adopted whereby the local authority could claim Government money if it used some of its own. This process held sway.
Discussion of the Bill, whether we like it or not, leads the House to consider large areas of education. The Bill cannot be discussed in vacuo because some of the money, little as it is, will tie up with the insufficient amount of money in the education system generally.
Those who have witnessed what happens to very young children when they first come to be trained in a nursery class or an infants class will know it is a wonderful sight to see, provided there are not large numbers of children and only one teacher.
When a child comes to school for the first time, il has just left the most important person in the world. It has had a one-to-one relationship with its mother and has had all her attention. At school the child has to get into a queue for the attention of the teacher, who is usually grossly overworked. It has to compete and, according to its own little personality, either it suffers through the competition or it finds the competition thrilling and exhilarating.
In a nursery it is important to have as few children to a teacher as possible and as much help and equipment as possible. Government Members know this very well because they tend to put their children in small classes while the rest of us have to accept the classes that are imposed on us. Children cannot be taught easily in a large class.
Any hon. Member who thinks that playgroups exist throughout the country is dreaming. This is not the case. Playgroups tend to be in middle-class areas where local young parents have the time to give to local children. Very few such parents in working class areas can volunteer to look after children or make use in an organised manner of the limited available cash.
While I do not condemn pre-school playgroups. I stress that great care must be exercised by educationists to ensure that money is not spent in this way which should he spent on proper nursery education. In primary schools many empty rooms are available in the sense that they are heated along with the rest of the school and they have a common caretaker. However, there must still be somebody to look after the children, preferably paid and they must be in charge of a proper nursery class.
The small amount of money the House is discussing is a large amount to those who need it and should be looked at against the background, where money is scarce and such provision is urgently needed. It is a crime to force schools to compete for the money available. Schools should have this money as of right to educate children.
The need for financial provision is greater in the inner city areas, where difficulties exist for children such as are not found in the more salubrious areas.
New clause 5 is important. Whether or not we differ about the amount of money, the educational matters the House is considering are of immense use to us all because we learn from one another what is the optimum.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) referred to remedial education. I wish to emphasise the importance of remedial education. I have seen the effect of this in a primary school. I managed to get enough money to clear out a cloakroom full of old furniture and make an attractive room for the children with a carpeted floor and some curtains. This room accommodated five or six children and the teacher. The teacher, the wife of a head teacher, worked full-time. She went round every class in the primary school and took out one or two children, with the result that those children had a very close relationship with the teacher.
A great deal of teachers' time in school these days is taken up in reading the card that gives children an instruction. It is lamentable if a child cannot read the instruction and must be given verbal instructions in a one-to-one relationship. It is vital that these children be taught to read as quickly as possible, otherwise they cannot make progress.
In the case I cited it was wonderful to have a full-time teacher taking out a few children, with the exception of virtually ineducable children. Not one child went to secondary school unable to read because one remedial teacher was able to have a close relationship with the children. The children began to love instead of dread the lesson and gradually caught up. Some children put as much as three years on their reading age in the first year of having worked with a remedial teacher.
I ask the House to draw the lesson that, if there is no remedial teacher because of cuts in staff and money, it is a crime against those children who are potential readers but who have to leave school unable to read.
I was talking only last week to a teacher at a school which has lost its remedial teacher. The headmaster is going to the homes of children who have difficulty and is spending his own time—there is no overtime in teaching — trying to help them. It is vital, however small the sum of money, that we take the greatest care to see that some of it is used to help retain remedial teachers because only by that means shall we ensure that all our children learn to read.
This has been an interesting debate, enlivened by the speech of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short), and we respect her knowledge, verve and determination in the matters about which she spoke.
I must apologise to the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) for missing his speech. My absence was neither deliberate nor implied rudeness to him. I shall read his remarks with interest, and if I trespass on anything he said I apologise in anticipation of his rebuke.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) referred to resources. It is the right of the Opposition to demand resources, just as it is the responsibility of the Government to find those resources and meet and answer competing needs. I hope that by the time we reach Third Reading, and in our debates on other clauses yet to be discussed, Opposition Members will give some idea of the costs of the demands that they are making on us. That is part of their duty if they are to act responsibly and put forward notions that they wish to commend to the Government or local authorities.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish referred to a scheme in Stockport and I was interested in what he said about Mrs. Wyatt and the Charnwood trust that had worked for some years. I shall be pleased to receive details of that scheme and place them before the Secretary of State when the period of consultation commences with the local authority associations. Anything that will help us to create the right pilot scheme is welcome, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that offer in the spirit in which it is given.
The hon. Gentleman referred to dyslexia. I fear to tread where angels might wish to do so—on the vexed subject of dyslexia—but I assure him that I have noted his remarks and will ensure that that aspect of his speech is discussed in the Department. He also referred to activity in connection with special education, such as the provision of equipment to help those with sensory or physical disabilities. I am sure that he would like me to give some indication of what might be involved if that were one of the activities selected. However, I must, as he would expect, enter the caveat that this is without prejudice to the discussions that my right hon. Friend will be having shortly with the local authority associations.
I give the example of a handicapped child. Sometimes a microelectronic device would be helpful, but perhaps the child cannot use it because it is operated by a keyboard which needs normal manual dexterity. For such a child the answer may be a personally designed interface to enable him or her to bypass the keyboard. The cost of the equipment would depend on the special requirements of the child, but as a broad indication I imagine that the additional cost might be up to £300 on top of about £1,300 for the basic microelectronic equipment. The total cost of the project in the area would depend on the number of children for whom it was designed. I am interested in that aspect, as is the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish.
The question of insurance, to which the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish also referred, I undertake to look into. If he will let me have any details he has to hand where a problem has arisen, I will make inquiries about that. The responsibility for the insurance of any goods or equipment stored in the schools of a local authority must be the responsibility of the local authority, but the hon. Gentleman touched on some real fears and I take on board what he said on the subject.
The new clauses have been presented with the aim of widening the debate perhaps further than one would expect on Report. This and the next group of new clauses, if accepted, would earmark a proportion of education support grant for particular activities or parts of the education service. I welcome this opportunity to describe the Government's achievements and policies in connection with the ESG. However, it would be unfair if I did not comment in general on the effect of the two new clauses before the House and the two that are to follow. They would mean, if enacted, that 80 per cent. of expenditure supported by ESGs would be earmarked for at least an initial three-year period. I do not suggest that the areas dealt with by the new clauses are unimportant, but I am opposed to the proposal that a proportion of expenditure supported by ESGs should be earmarked in that way.
The Bill includes a number of checks and safeguards. The expenditure that can be supported by ESGs is limited, as I said in Committee, to a small proportion of the Government's plans for expenditure on education by LEAs. Indeed, the Bill provides that there will be further opportunity for Members of this House and of another place to debate the purposes for which the Government propose to use the grants. These purposes will be defined in regulations subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Furthermore, the Bill would require my right hon. Friend to consult the appropriate local authority associations before bringing the proposals to Parliament.
As I said in Committee, the need for such consultation would not exist if the new clauses were carried because about 80 per cent. of total expenditure to be incurred on education support grants would already be committed to the areas covered by the new clauses. That would diminish the element of flexibility that I believe to be essential in conducting our negotiations with the local authority associations. That must be accepted as being an inhibiting factor to open, thorough and necessary discussions.
At this season of goodwill I should love to accede to the hon. Gentleman's request, but as he does not believe in Christmas — I am sure that he is not a Scrooge, but he does not believe in Christmas in the sense that we do—I cannot wear the white beard tonight.
I come to other aspects of new clause 3 because it deals with nursery education. The Government share the view of parents and experts in education about the value of nursery education, and on this issue we have common ground with Opposition Members. I must, however, draw their attention to earlier times when the Labour party was in office. As it has been the case with us, so it was the case with them, that the economic circumstances that have prevailed since the 1970s have meant that progress towards meeting the increased demand for nursery places has been gradual. Nevertheless, the numbers of children in nursery schools and nursery classes in England have continued to grow — from about 187,000 in 1977 to more than 235,000 in 1982—and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East will welcome those figures. The proportion of three and four-year-olds receiving nursery education in 1982 was 22 per cent., the highest ever figure.
Will the Minister confirm that some of that improvement has been due to the fact that some children who were receiving nursery education full time now receive it half time, the result being that while more are receiving nursery education, the number of hours being taught has not increased anything like so dramatically?
I do not know the answer to that question. I undertake to obtain the details and let the House know. However, during the period of this Administration, numbers participating in nursery schools and nursery classes have risen by about 37,000 or 18 per cent., and at the same time more than 200,000 children under five are to be found in reception classes in primary schools. Overall, therefore, 40 per cent. of children aged three or four years are receiving education within the state system.
I was pleased to hear the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) in which he welcomed the importance and worth of playgroups. The House will know that some 500,000 children are in attendance at playgroups during the course of a week. Anything along those lines which encourages and creates opportunities for parents to take their children to playgroups is welcomed by us, and I note my hon. Friend's remarks. As the father of two sons under the age of 18 months, the subject of nursery school provision is near to my heart. I cannot meet the target of my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) of having six sons; I am afraid I am too old for that.
The hon. Member fr Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) referred to deprived areas and inner city problems, an aspect which he debates in the House from time to time. He will know that the arrangements for distributing block grant acknowledge the special demands for nursery provision in deprived areas. A crucial factor in determining how much grant an authority receives is its overall grant-related expenditure assessment. The GREA for education for under-fives takes account of the incidence of social and economic deprivation in each authority, as well as the number of under-fives. I hope that I have set the hon. Gentleman's mind slightly at rest by that explanation.
I accept that there is a demand for ever greater opportunities for nursery education, but in all honesty I must tell the House that this is not an area for further pump priming or innovative work through the support of ESGs. Much pioneering work has already been done, but the constraint is what the country, and therefore individual areas, can afford to spend.
We appreciate the intention behind new clause 5, although we believe that it suggests the wrong way to achieve it. It is our concern just as much as it is that of the Opposition that special education should get a fair share of the resources available. The difference between the Government and the Opposition is that our record is better than theirs. It was a decision of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that established the committee of inquiry under Mrs. Warnock. As the House knows, that committee reported in 1978 when another right hon. Lady was Secretary of State. However, it was left to a Conservative Government to bring in the legislation to give effect to the recommendations for changes in the law. Of course, by no means all the 224 recommendations in Warnock call for changes in the law. Many of them are aimed at practices within schools and within local education authorities and at the content of teacher-training courses.
The Education Act 1981 makes two things clear. First, ordinary schools have a responsibility towards a large minority of children with special needs. Warnock thought it might be one in six or one in seven children. These children are properly placed in ordinary schools. Since the Education Act 1944 those schools have had a duty to provide for such children according to their aptitudes and abilities. Secondly, the children who need something more than ordinary schools can offer must have their needs assessed individually by a combined professional assessment, including advice from at least three sources—educational, medical and psychological.
Within the framework laid down in legislation the Government can encourage and exhort, but detailed decisions, as ever under the partnership between central and local government, are made locally. On Second Reading my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested that education support grants might be used in a limited way to support the meeting of special educational needs, possibly through assisting with the establishment of resource centres or providing microelectronic aids for handicapped children. We want to discuss those possibilities and any others that the associations might suggest with representatives of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of County Councils. We shall discuss those later. However, I do not think that these discussions or the effectiveness of the scheme, assuming that Parliament passes the Bill, will be helped by rigid rules about the percentage of money to be spent on this or that object. Therefore, I strongly recommend the rejection of new clauses 3 and 5.
I cannot say that we are entirely satisfied by what the Minister has said, particularly about nursery education. He was perhaps less than full in his projection of the Government's plans. He mentioned that the rate of participation of the under-fives in nursery education is about 40 per cent. As he knows from the relevant table in his White Paper, which I have here, the plan is that the proportion of under-fives will decline to about 35 per cent. in 1984–85. This is lower than it was in 1978–79. Although at one stage, in 1980–81, spending was up to 40 per cent., it is lower now and it will get even lower, as the Minister knows, now that we no longer have falling rolls for this age group.
The Government have started to cut back on their spending in real terms and as a consequence the numbers receiving nursery education as a percentage of that age group will decline. Perhaps the Minister should have said that to the House and should not have sounded so complacent about the Government's record.
We have had a useful debate on both issues and I would therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.