Nursery Vouchers

Oral Answers to Questions — Education and Employment – in the House of Commons at 1:51 pm on 26 February 1997.

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Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham , Coventry South East 1:51, 26 February 1997

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment when she estimates that every four-year-old with a voucher will have access to a pre-school place. [16066]

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

I am confident that, over time, existing and new providers in the maintained, private and voluntary sectors will bring forward the places that parents want in exchange for nursery education vouchers.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham , Coventry South East

When will the Secretary of State honour the Prime Minister's pledge to the Tory party conference in 1994 when he said that he would give a cast iron guarantee that all four-year-olds would get pre-school places? Is the Minister aware that the pilot schemes show that when the voucher system is used, the shortfall in the maintained sector will not be made up for four-year-olds?

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

The hon. Gentleman did not complete the quotation. The Prime Minister spoke about ensuring that all four-year-olds will have a nursery place, and we have made a start during this Parliament. It is a question not of theory, but of what is happening. If the hon. Gentleman looks at what is happening under phase 1, he will see that extra places have been created not just in the local education authority sector but in the voluntary sector. [Interruption.] There is a net increase in the voluntary sector in Norfolk alone of more than 300 places. [Interruption.] The Opposition do not like the answer. Not only is there an increased number of places, but more than 1,000 four-year-olds in Norfolk are enjoying longer sessions—five sessions a week instead of three as a result of vouchers. There is a choice. The Government have given parents of all four-year-olds a greater opportunity for nursery education through vouchers. Labour would take that away from them.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington , Aylesbury

Does my hon. Friend agree that the expansion of pre-school education, which we want to see, would be most likely to take place if, building on the encouraging experience of the pilot authorities, there continue to be a constructive partnership between the maintained and the voluntary sectors in providing additional places?

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

Not only is my hon. Friend right in emphasising partnership, but the voucher makes that partnership more profitable for all providers. In particular, I urge any local authority or school which feels that by pressuring parents, especially those of young four-year-olds, to take those children to reception classes earlier than would otherwise be in their interests is somehow doing them a favour, to think again and work in partnership as my hon. Friend has said.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Would not the Minister make a distinction between a pre-school place and a pre-school place in a nursery school? What have the Government done since the Prime Minister's announcement about three years ago to increase the number of places and expenditure for the training of qualified nursery teachers? What figures does the Minister have on that?

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

The first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is about an area that he knows well. There is a range of provision which, separately, the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's chief inspector have praised over the full range, showing that each type of provider can offer good-quality pre-school provision. As for the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, it is of course a responsibility of local education authorities, and has been for some time, to ensure that teachers are given continuous training, whether in the nursery or the post-five sector. One of the other advantages of the voucher is that significant extra sums are being realised to enable more similar training to take place in the voluntary sector than has been possible in the past.