I am pleased to be granted the opportunity to introduce this debate on early years education; the subject is very close to my heart, as I have three children who fall into that category.
We need to define what we mean by early years education—there is some confusion as to the age group that is covered by that phrase. I asked the headmistress of my children's local school, whose authority on such matters I always respect. She told me that it was internationally accepted that early years education covered children up to the age of eight. I was rather pleased to hear that because, although I am not a professionally trained teacher, that is the age group of which I have direct experience. That experience has been accumulated in several different locations: the nature of political work is such that one moves around a lot, first as a candidate and then as a Member of Parliament to one's constituency; and because early years education provision varies around the country, I have had a chance to experience several different systems.
Above all, I am anxious that today's debate should focus on the quality of early years education and that the needs of the child should be paramount in our discussion. By the end of the debate, we should have a better idea of what we mean by "quality" and be working on ways to achieve that quality for all children. Key to the provision of early years education are the people who look after the children. Children need to attach themselves to someone—the jargon refers to such people as "key workers"—but the parent's understanding of their role is rather different from the child's. The first time a mother takes her young child to a place providing early years education, it is a wrench to leave that child for two and a half hours; usually a few tears are shed, and not only by the child.
It is essential that both parent and child trust the worker who is to take care of the child. Trust develops over time, and the authority, ideas and values conveyed by that other adult become important to the child's family and then to the community in which the early years provision is located. I am sure that other parents will be able to identify with what authority their child comes home and says, "But Mummy, Mrs. McKay said today that we must do such and such." That shows the influence that that key person can exert.
If there is turnover in staff, or if staff are of inadequate quality, that can be extremely unsettling for a child, so the quality of personnel is an essential consideration. We have to decide what should be the minimum qualifications for those working in early years education. What sort of training should they receive, and who will manage and monitor that? We must also consider the issue of child protection. Unfortunately, we have become more aware of how vulnerable children are in all sorts of educational settings, so adequate thought must be given to protecting them.
The second key element of quality is the environment. That extends beyond the basic requirements of the environment being clean, safe and warm; it must be appropriate to the age group of children. I was concerned by the report of Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools which identified several early years environments that were inadequate: for example, 14 per cent. had no outdoor play area. As all parents know, as well as learning, children of the ages covered by early years provision need to let off steam. If there is no outdoor facility, that environment is not appropriate to the age group.
Another key element in quality is close examination of our real objectives in providing early years education. Is it primarily for the benefit of the child, or are our objectives mixed? If we have the child's interest most at heart, we need to be realistic about the amount of time that children spend in early years education. Pre-schoolers often cannot cope with more than two or three hours per day, and they are very tired at the end of that educational experience. A child of statutory school age typically copes with a six and a half hour school day. However, if our hidden agenda is to provide more early years education so as to help more women back into work, the child's day easily becomes extended to nine hours or more, and children have difficulty coping with long periods spent outside the home.
The working day conforms to typical shop or office hours, and so extends beyond the school day. That presents us with a dilemma. I fear that there is a real danger of young children becoming institutionalised when they are in supervised educational environments for up to 12 hours each day, often throughout school holidays, because working parents are typically allowed four weeks annual leave, whereas school holidays extend well beyond that period.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that it is important to give parents the opportunity to work part-time, if that is their preference? Does she agree that a great step in that direction will be achieved by the introduction of the working families tax credit and child care tax credit, which the Government intend to introduce in the autumn? Those are policies which the Conservatives are opposing; how can the hon. Lady oppose them when it is of such advantage to parents to be able to work part-time?
I shall come to the WFTC later. Part-time working is more compatible with school provision, but part-time workers often find that their leave is not concordant with school holidays, which leaves us with the problem of children tending to become institutionalised. Children need to learn at home as well.
Would my hon. Friend care to comment on the fact that the real growth in part-time working happened during the 1980s and early 1990s? At that time, Labour Members did not consider part-time jobs to be proper jobs, but now they are in government, and part-time work is the only form of employment that is growing, they think it is most important to encourage that sort of employment.
I agree and 1 thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, because it gives me an opportunity to nail a myth. The growth in early years education is not the invention of any one political party; it reflects changing practice in the workplace, not only in this country, but throughout the western world. Twenty years ago, far fewer women wanted to go out to work when their children were in the early years category, but with wider educational and employment opportunities for women has come a greater desire to do so. I should not like the debate, which should focus on the needs of the child, to be diverted by false claims of victory in matters of employment.
May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the damage that is being done to existing nursery school provision by additional regulations? I have received a letter from a playgroup in Wivenhoe in my constituency; it is a charitable institution which receives voluntary help. Its pupils are being siphoned off—in some cases unnecessarily—into the new early years education provision in state schools; and the Government's minimum wage legislation is having a damaging effect on its financial viability, as is the requirement for three weeks paid leave, rising to four, and the need to pay higher national insurance contributions on wages in excess of £105 a week. Those damaging measures have forced the playgroup to move to cheaper premises and to cut staff—is it Government policy to do that?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; he will find that later parts of my speech deal with those issues, but he has provided another example of the problem. The phenomenon he describes is not confined to one part of the country, but is widespread.
I am concerned that increasing the number of hours of early years provision should not be detrimental to the needs of young children. The needs of many young, often single, parents may also be properly catered for by stability and security of provision throughout the early years. Whether they are young, old, single or married, all parents of young children need support, advice and encouragement. Parent evenings offer invaluable opportunities to get an angle on how to handle one's own child, but, sadly, not all parents take that opportunity. I am worried about the Government undermining parental and family support through the child care tax credit, because it can only be used for paid, registered child care, which means that there is little practical support when other family members and much-loved informal carers care for young children.
There is a debate about what quality means and what children are being taught at this stage in their education. Adults often think of easily quantifiable goals such as the age at which a child learns to read, write or count. We have forgotten how much we learned informally as young children through creative play, experiments and games. I draw the Minister's attention to an article that appeared in Nursery World on 8 April this year which compares and contrasts the Scottish system with the English early years curriculum. Approaching the issue from the child's angle, it asks: would a child prefer an adult who creates opportunity for play, improves communication and stimulates his or her interest in a happy environment, or would a child rather be with adults who have goals that will establish expectations for him or her based on what most children can do by the end of the reception year? I was horrified to read that, according to the Government's consultation document about early learning goals, my four-year-old might be expected to:
form sentences sometimes using punctuation.
What if he cannot do that? Does it mean that he will be labelled a failure at age four? It is extraordinary that that should be considered a "desirable outcome".
Those goals do not cater for children who are disadvantaged by the fact that English is not their first language or who have a learning difficulty. Boys and girls make different developmental progress. I have children of both sexes and I have seen how four-year-old boys take a different approach to learning. It is interesting to watch the way in which girls settle into a nursery setting, interact with each other, take out their books and get on with it while the chaps tumble around on the floor.
There is also the question of the range of early years education, to which some hon. Members have alluded already. There is no doubt that parents have demanded more early years provision. I am astonished by the range and quality of early years education in this country. When I moved to my constituency of Meriden, I was surprised by the level of nursery provision available throughout the Solihull borough. I freely admit that the nursery vouchers scheme proposed by the previous Conservative Government was wholly inappropriate for that borough—but I do not want to be distracted into a discussion about how successful that was not.
The fact is that there is a high level of state provision in my borough, which aims to ensure total provision for all three-year-olds by 2000. However, I also observe that private provision is struggling to compete and that parental choice is diminishing. Two nurseries in my constituency that will have to close this year have approached me. Both nurseries predate the establishment of the state nursery that is attached to the local primary school, and one of them has been around for about 40 years. In that case, mothers got together and provided playgroup-nursery support in order to meet local demand in the community. The nursery is situated in the local church hall and is an important economic link for that church.
Two things have happened to nurseries in my area. First, the creation of the state nursery has encouraged parents to take up places there because they are afraid that they may otherwise not secure reception places. There is no better place than this House to speak the truth about what is happening in the community and the subtle constraints being placed upon choice.
The other side of that coin is that the space allocated to nurseries within primary schools is preventing expansion and development for older children. That is happening in my constituency. The spin-off is that popular schools have less room to expand their facilities for older children because they are offering nursery provision that is already locally established in the private sector.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The schools in my area that have expanded to provide state nursery education are stretched for space for other ages.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, the Government's new employment legislation has compounded the strangulation of private provision. The people who run the two nurseries in my constituency that are to close have cited specifically the effect of the introduction of the minimum wage upon the economics of their operations. When they approached me, they were unaware that, under minimum wage legislation, they would be required to pay maternity and annual leave. They were horrified that their small establishments—which grew out of ad hoc arrangements and are supported in the community—would be knocked sideways by that heavy-handed employment legislation.
That pattern is replicated up and down the country. The Pre-School Learning Alliance calculates that about 1,700 pre-schools are threatened with closure this year in addition to the 1,500 that closed in 1997 and 1998. The Department for Education and Employment disputes those figures, but its claim of a net loss of 100 playgroups is definitely flawed as it is based on social services statistics, which include changes of name, ownership and address. We must approach closure statistics with caution.
Many mums who help with playgroups are volunteers and are pleased to receive about £8 for a 4-hour session to help with their own costs. Is it not ridiculous to rule that those mothers must be paid £3.60 an hour or work for nothing when the old arrangements worked sensibly? That must be an unintended consequence of the Government's minimum wage legislation.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He makes my point precisely: it is wholly inappropriate to talk in ideological language about poverty pay in nurseries when, in reality, there is often a high level of volunteer and parental involvement in those operations. Parents have been happy to be involved in that way to date and they are greatly disappointed to see that heavy-handed legislation eroding their achievements over the years in providing a service to the local community.
Real partnerships can be achieved without that sort of heavy-handedness and strangulation by state nurseries. My children attend Knowle Church of England primary school whose site also comprises a private day nursery, Early Birds, which offers nursery provision and a wrap-around service. Continuity for children is provided on the same site. I urge the Government to recognise that it is possible for private and state provision to co-exist happily in a real partnership. It is a symbiotic relationship that allows parents a real choice.
So that the Minister's response is not distracted by a sterile ideological debate about employment law and its application in this area, let us return to the key question: what is quality in early years education? What should the minimum standard be and what target should we set for premium provision in early years? How can we ensure that the poorest areas do not suffer from the poorest provision? How do we deliver quality early years education across the board? Above all, how can we ensure that we get it right for our children? To fail them in this endeavour would be to deprive them of the full glory of childhood—and our generation would have an awful lot to answer for if that happened. That is why I have initiated this debate.
I thank the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) for securing the debate on an issue that we all agree is important and I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to it. The Government have already made significant commitments to, and progress in, the provision of early years education, and I shall refer to that later in my speech.
I agree with the hon. Member for Meriden that the quality of educational provision for young children is important and that one factor that determines that quality is the stability of the staff and the key workers with whom they come into contact. There is a conflict between aiming to achieve that objective, and refusing to accept that it might be necessary for staff to receive decent levels of pay and training. The minimum wage is a way of ensuring a reduction in labour turnover not only in child care provision but in all small businesses. It ensures precisely the stability that is necessary to provide high-quality child care.
Surely the logic of the hon. Lady's argument would write off a whole range of community initiatives and voluntary and charitable work. If, as she is saying, quality and continuity can be provided only by professional staff, that would put an end to a range of activities, not only in education but many other areas of life, which are provided in my constituency and, I am sure, in hers.
I certainly was not arguing that quality depends only on a professional input. Of course, it depends on good volunteers, but there is a slight irony in saying that we need to maintain stability and continuity of employment, but that we are not willing to underpin that aim with a minimum wage, which, as experience in other countries has revealed, helps to reduce labour turnover.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that to pay a professionally qualified teacher £3.60 an hour would be an insult. Conservative Members are not suggesting that it is right to take on professional people at that rate, but surely the minimum wage is not aimed at such people. It is suitable for people who are willing to volunteer to work in organisations that have money to help with the expenses that such volunteers incur by driving to the place of work and, perhaps, putting their own children into child care. What is wrong with those people being paid an £8 allowance for working in such places or being able to volunteer their services for free? Surely the hon. Lady can determine the difference between what we are asking for and the Government's rigid minimum wage legislation.
As a member of the National Union of Teachers, I do not think that £3.60 an hour is an appropriate rate for a teacher. However, pay of less than £3.60 an hour is not appropriate for people whom we trust to care for and develop our children. That is the significant point.
No, I want to move on.
As the hon. Member for Meriden said, the issues connected with early years education range much wider than the minimum wage and employment legislation, although they have an important contribution to make. I declare an interest as the mother of a five-year-old and a child of 10 months. Two years ago, my family was lucky in that my son was able to attend the nursery class in a local primary school. Like many parents, we sent him there because we wanted him to have the opportunities offered by high-quality early years education. Those include the chance to meet and play with other children; the opportunity to experience a range of stimulating, fun play and learning activities; the opportunity to learn how to work in a group; the chance to talk, listen and develop concentration, and the chance to learn how to share, or not, as the case may be. That high-quality early years education provides not only a social introduction to school but the early foundations for literacy and numeracy that are so important for raising standards later in children's school life and beyond.
Like the hon. Member for Meriden, I welcome the opportunity to discuss my child's progress with qualified staff. Anyone who has experienced a parents' evening knows the slight trepidation that one feels when one arrives at the school to talk about the child's progress, but it is crucial to have an early analysis of children's strengths or special needs because that can provide an early indicator of support that is needed or even just ideas for talking to and playing with them. I agreed with the hon. Lady when she stressed the importance of the parents' role. I am not an expert in colouring with pencils, cutting out and other activities that are important for children. I welcome the expertise offered by the nursery class that my son attended and in his present primary school which gave me ideas about what to do with my children.
The other day, I was particularly pleased to visit Hollyoakes Field first school in my constituency. That runs a good project, according to which parents are invited into the classroom to work with teachers and benefit from those ideas for developing play and learning opportunities outside the classroom. We want to develop more of those initiatives that involve parents.
I recognise, from my experience, the advantages of early years education, but for my child such provision was piecemeal. What children received was determined by luck, one's ability to travel and often, most significantly, by one's ability to pay for quality nursery care. I recognise the important role played by private providers, but we should have learned from the past the lesson that parental choice cannot be delivered simply by allowing a free market to exist without planning and coherence in provision.
That was particularly the case under the former Hereford and Worcester county council when it had a Conservative administration. The council provided itself a low-cost education service and viewed nursery and early years education as a frill which could be dispensed with to keep costs down. My family benefited from the Labour and Liberal Democrat administration that took over the council, which succeeded in increasing the number of nursery classes and realised the importance of that provision for children's long-term success. Despite the improvements made by that administration during the 1990s, the authority continued to be hampered by a lack of political and financial support from national Government and, most significantly, a lack of a coherent strategy across the range of providers of nursery and early years education. That lack of co-ordination was, of course, exacerbated by the introduction of the nursery vouchers scheme.
It might be worth while reminding ourselves, as a contrast to the present situation, what happened under the nursery vouchers scheme. It managed to combine the worst disadvantages of a completely free market—lack of planning, no entitlement to, or equality of access and no certainty of supply—with a bureaucracy that left parents gasping and taxpayers footing the bill. I welcome the Government's quick action to establish early years development partnerships and plans. It is clear from experience that we can achieve a coherent system only if we involve all providers, public and private; local authority social services, as well as education services, and employers, training and enterprise councils and parents.
Does the hon. Lady accept that one of the main criticisms of the nursery vouchers scheme was that it encouraged schools to take children into reception classes, which was inappropriate? Does she accept also that it is unfortunate that that trend has not stopped following the ending of the vouchers scheme? Would she care to comment on that?
There is a slight irony in the Opposition arguing for parental choice while suggesting that there are press gangs of reception class teachers wandering around towns, grabbing unsuspecting children into their classes. Conservative Members cannot argue both for parental choice and that there should not be broad provision. I accept the—
No; I shall make progress.
I accept that there needs to be a choice—which the nursery voucher scheme certainly did not deliver. To deliver that choice, all the providers—public and private—must work together.
The Government undoubtedly set a tough task in the preparation of early years development plans. I accept that providers that had become used to competing have not always found it easy to work together. Before planning, one needs to know what provision already exists. The new system introduced tight time scales. The Government—in my view, rightly—put the responsibility on the early years development partnerships to consider not just provision but special educational needs, equal opportunities, training and quality assurance.
Locally, at the start of the process, people expressed some concerns to me, but they took on the challenge. In Worcestershire, they have already delivered a free place for every four-year-old and they are working to fulfil the Government's target of providing free, good-quality early education places to 66 per cent. of three-year-olds by April 2002.
The development partnership and the local education authority have appointed an early years development officer. They have formed mentor-teacher teams to support good practice in a full range of settings, in recognition of the need for quality provision and the challenges of developing learning opportunities for younger children.
There has been some concern about the learning experiences of young children, especially in reception classes. The very fact that we are holding this debate recognises the huge expansion in early years provision that has already taken place and the proposed even bigger expansion in it. It is a luxury that we did not have under the previous Government, because at the time not many children benefited from that type of education, so we did not need to discuss it. Nevertheless, it is important, and I know from first-hand experience that some excellent work has gone on in reception classes with young four-year-olds.
Much of the debate has centred on a false distinction drawn between formal education and other nursery education. Being in a primary school does not necessarily or automatically imply a style of learning, just as being in a nursery or playgroup does not. What matters is what teachers and other staff actually do with the children.
Now that the system is developing, there is an important job to do. Unlike the hon. Member for Meriden, I believe that it is important to clarify desirable learning outcomes, not because we want to regiment children or stipulate that all children must have achieved a certain standard, or because we want to declare them to be failures, but because it is increasingly important, in such a developing area, that we consider good practice, not just for four and five-year-olds but for three-year-olds. is the hon. Member arguing that we should have no clarity about what we are trying to achieve with children of those ages in primary or nursery education? I believe that that is precisely the provision which we should be developing. I also recognise, as mentioned by the hon. Member, that there are important new training needs for staff working in early years. The Government also accept that. In the longer term, we must ensure that there is evaluation of, and research on, what works for younger children.
I would welcome the formation of a distinct phase of early education, with different approaches to the way in which we teach children and with an emphasis on training teachers and other staff about those approaches. The Government's development of early years education provides us with a very good opportunity for doing so.
The process in Worcestershire continues. Targets must be met, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on the county's progress, especially bearing in mind the very low point from which it started, following the experience of the 1980s.
I am pleased that we are starting to consider child care, too, and I am sure that other hon. Members will discuss that issue. Services for young children and their families obviously need to be developed holistically. I welcome the fact that Worcestershire has a multi-disciplinary audit team, which is studying current provision in order to develop it. In a county such as Worcestershire, where there are urban and rural communities, there is a range of questions to be asked about access to child care and early years education.
The development partnership has already been extended in Worcestershire, and it is working with local groups such as the Redditch Playcare Partnership—a group of providers, users and agencies involved in providing playcare. I know that that local group has welcomed the opportunity to make an input to the consultation undertaken by the early years development partnership and the local education authority.
Just as it is necessary to develop a coherent approach to the provision of early years education, we now need to link education, child care, play and other services dealing with young children. I was slightly concerned by what the hon. Member for Meriden said about institutionalising children. I agree that education and child care are governed by some different objectives, but it does not help us to develop a coherent approach to all a child's needs if we condemn some of the good work in child care provision as institutionalising children. We need to monitor quality, but that is not helped by condemning existing provision.
On that basis, I especially welcome the Government's commitment to the sure start programme, and to early excellence centres. Clearly, in its widest sense, education does not start at school or nursery or playgroup, and it is affected by more than educational provision. That is why it is so important that we provide parents with support, and that we bring together agencies to work holistically.
One of the key issues is not the choice between providers but the choice within the week, so that children can go to different providers to get a rich variety of different provision.
I agree with my hon. Friend.
I know that the Redditch Playcare Partnership is especially keen to contribute to developing initiatives on sure start and early excellence centres, and I hope that the Minister will consider Redditch in future programmes.
The Government have set tough targets. They are expecting a lot, but they have given a commitment to deliver, which is already reflected in local provision. I am glad that we have had the opportunity to hold the debate, and I look forward to the Government's future work in early years education.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on securing the debate. I also congratulate her on devoting much of her contribution to the vital importance of ensuring that all provision is of high quality. I am especially delighted to be able to contribute to the debate because I am president of the National Campaign for Nursery Education—many of whose members will visit the palace today. I hope that as many hon. Members as possible will take the opportunity to speak to members of that organisation from their constituencies.
One of the very welcome aspects of the debate has been the fact that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have shown a clear recognition of the strong emphasis that needs to be placed on high-quality early years education. I believe that all hon. Members in the Chamber recognise the real educational and social benefit to children that will result from such provision. We know from research that children who benefit from such provision are likely to obtain better jobs in later life, are less likely to make demands on social security systems and are much less likely to be involved in juvenile crime. We also know that such provision provides the opportunity for the early identification of special educational needs and the opportunity to start tackling them as quickly as possible.
As has been said, perhaps equally important is the way in which early years education provides an early opportunity for the vital involvement of parents in the educative process. Evidence suggests that if we can involve them early in the process, they are likely to remain involved at all stages of schooling.
Given the importance that we all place on high-quality early years education, I welcome the progress that is being made. I welcome also, of course, the abolition of the bureaucratic nightmare of nursery vouchers. I have never heard a better condemnation of it than that of the hon. Member for Meriden, who said:
how successful that was not.
The hon. Lady was right: it was not a successful system.
Like the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), 1 welcome the increased emphasis that is now placed on early years development plans and the linking of early years education with child care. I hope that the Minister will consider in more detail the qualification framework for child care providers and the registration of child carers.
I welcome the fact that we have almost universal provision of early years education for all four-year-olds whose parents want it for their children. I also very much welcome the Government's introduction of sure start, which is a scheme to provide education support to the parents of very young children. Incidentally, the idea was contained in the Liberal Democrats' manifesto at the last election. It was not in the Labour party's manifesto, but we are delighted that Labour picked it up and is running with it.
The hon. Gentleman always speaks with great honesty and knowledge on these matters. However, he is welcoming a great deal; that will ring pretty hollow in many parts of the country, because people know very well that there is a pre-school playgroup or nursery closing every other day. There is a crisis in the playgroup sector, particularly for the care and education of two, three and four-year-olds, as the hon. Gentleman will know. I hope that he will deal with that and attack the Government on that basis. I know what a decent and honourable chap he is.
The hon. Gentleman has always been so generous to me in his contributions. He will know that I try to be fair to both sides in such a debate and, as he knows only too well, he has anticipated the next part of my contribution.
I was saying before the hon. Gentleman intervened how much I welcome the sure start scheme. I say in, I hope, a somewhat friendly way to the Minister that, although I welcome sure start, I do not think it has been necessary for the Government continually to launch it. One launch would seem to be enough. The Government have now launched the scheme on five separate occasions, which seems to be going over the top. I suppose, to borrow a John Lewis slogan, that Labour is the party that is never knowingly underlaunched.
I recognise that not all is well, and, although I welcome some of the developments that have taken place, I wish to share some concerns with the House. The hon. Member for Meriden, who is now sitting on the Opposition Front Bench—I congratulate the hon. Lady on her promotion—rightly expressed concern about space provision in early years settings. She will recall that it was a Conservative Government who abolished the requirement for space provision. I am delighted to see that the Minister is so supportive of that comment, but I remind her that, despite my repeated attempts, I have not yet persuaded the Government to reinstate the requirement. Perhaps she will make a promise later in the debate to do that.
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the subject of sure start, will he join me in calling on the Government to extend the scheme to Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the United Kingdom that does not have the benefit of the scheme? It is the part of the UK which has the lowest provision of nursery school places.
I am more than happy to support the hon. Gentleman in his call. He has raised the interesting point of the variation in levels of provision throughout the UK. In Scotland, for example, the Labour party is committing itself in its manifesto to the provision of high-quality early years education for all three and four-year-olds in that part of the UK. It is a great pity that such a promise to provide sure start in Northern Ireland, for example, or a guarantee of the provision of education for three-year-olds in England has not yet been made, not least given that, at the last election, the Labour party's manifesto stated:
We will set targets for universal provision for three-year-olds whose parents want it.
To date, no target has been set for universal provision by the Labour Government, although I acknowledge that there has been some improvement in the level of provision.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Liberal Democrat councils have a woeful record of provision of nursery places? I think that I am right in saying that the Isle of Wight is one of the least good providers. Certainly it is Labour councils that have provided universal nursery education, not Liberal Democrat councils.
No. I categorically do not accept that from the hon. Lady. She can trade individual local education authorities with me until the cows come home. I assure her that I can match LEA for LEA with her in terms of the inadequate provision of a number of aspects of education. Perhaps she will reflect on the fact that, over the past two years, under a Labour Government of whom many people expected a great deal, many LEAs have had to cut provision further, be they Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative. The hon. Lady shakes her head, but, in reality, the amount available in real terms per pupil under a Labour Government has been cut in each of the past two years. That, of course, makes it difficult to make provision.
It is important that we have quality provision. The Government have acknowledged that there is a link between quality of provision and class size; yet, under the Government, average nursery class sizes have increased. That makes it difficult for local education authorities to provide high-quality education. It must be difficult to provide high-quality early years education for the 90,000 children in England alone who are in reception classes of more than 30 children.
We have all accepted that it is important that high-quality early years provision should be made by a variety of different providers, including the voluntary, the state and the private sectors. It must be of real concern, therefore, that there have been many closures of, for example, pre-school playgroups. There is increasing concern about the closure of nursery schools. The National Campaign for Nursery Education is increasingly concerned about reports of closures and about the sacking of some nursery nurses, who have been reappointed as lower grade staff so as to cut costs. I welcome the Government's announcement that there will be an independent review of the cause for the closure of some playgroups.
The hon. Member for Redditch was right, as was the hon. Member for Meriden, when she said that, if we are to talk about quality, we must be clear what provision we are talking about and what we expect those who are providing high-quality early years education to provide.
Two and a bit years ago, my party advocated the establishment of a foundation key stage. We argued that if we have key stages for all other parts of our education process, there should be one for early years education. We advocated that it should specify the appropriate qualifications for staff, the appropriate setting in which learning would take place and the appropriate set of learning activities. I am delighted, therefore, that the Government seem to be accepting that Liberal Democrat proposal as well, but we must debate what learning activities should be contained within it. I worry that the proposals in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority review suggest that perhaps—and it may only be perhaps—the Government are going in the wrong direction in respect of the kind of learning experience that they want three and four-year-olds to have.
The review seems to emphasise getting children to read and write early, but all serious research suggests that that is harmful, rather than helpful, to young children. For example, Hungary, Switzerland and Belgium all recognise the importance of delaying the start of formal education and using the early years to set the scene and to prepare children appropriately. The Hungarian kindergarten handbook, the Swiss Rahmenplan and the Flemish core curriculum all emphasise dealing with the concrete and representational, rather than moving to the purely abstract that reading and writing entail.
The Flemish core curriculum states:
Too large and particularly too early an emphasis on the abstract may lead to a method of hearing and blandly repeating: of blindly applying learned procedures and reasoning at the cost of real understanding. When we give children time to gain understanding … they will automatically have fun doing Maths later on.
The research is clear: although Hungarian and Flemish-speaking Belgian children enter primary school at the beginning of what is our year 2 having received no teaching at all in reading and writing, within only one term almost every ordinary Hungarian and Flemish-Belgian child can read and write. That is compelling evidence indeed. It is vital to protect the youngest children in our schools and in nursery settings from inappropriate pressures, which lead to premature and counter-productive instruction. That protection should be guaranteed in the foundation key stage.
I am not alone in expressing concerns about the QCA review. I said at the beginning of my contribution that I was delighted to be the president of the National Campaign for Nursery Education. It has welcomed the
idea of establishing a foundation key stage, but cannot support the current review. It feels that the review is a travesty, saying:
The narrow emphasis on literacy and numeracy and the notion that the 'majority' of children should achieve these goals will inevitably mean that many children are set up for failure; those particularly vulnerable will include summer-born children, bilingual learners, boys and those with Special Educational Needs.
I will not, because other Members want to contribute.
The foundation stage should protect children from counter-productive pressures and open, rather than close, avenues for learning.
We have made much progress in early years education, which I welcome, but I believe that, in this area at least, the Government may be going down the wrong road. As everyone is making special pleading, I hope that the Minister will make an visit to the Bath Opportunities playgroup, which provides excellent support to children with severe learning and physical difficulties. It has serious financial problems and anything that she can do to help will be gratefully welcomed.
I welcome the debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on securing it. It is particularly appropriate that she has done so, because it was Margaret Thatcher who remarked in the 1970s that her Government would provide nursery education for all three and four-year-olds. A Conservative Government never came anywhere near meeting that aspiration. Nursery provision in Cambridgeshire, which is my local authority area, never reached higher than about 34 per cent. in the whole period of Conservative government. It is fitting that a Labour Government will achieve nursery education and appropriate child care for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want them to have it.
I have only just started my speech and I will not give way at this stage.
It is appropriate to provide for parents a wide choice of nurseries, playgroups, child minders or even reception classes for their children to take advantage of. A good number of parents with mature four-year-olds would like their children to be in reception classes rather than in nursery classes, but that gives rise to a particular issue in my constituency. Cambridgeshire has a policy of allowing schools to admit children in the September after their fourth birthday, which means that children born in July or August may start in reception classes shortly after their fourth birthday.
A body of parents have formed a group called Action for Fours, which is led by Catherine Hurley and Kate Polack—two young mothers in my constituency who feel that they should not be forced to send their children to school. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister about this issue and she rightly said that parents should choose whether their child should start school before the statutory age. However, there is a problem for schools: if a child is not in full-time education when the census is conducted in February, but a place has been kept vacant, they do not receive funding for that child. An over-subscribed school will not want to keep places vacant for children who may arrive halfway through the year. I hope that the Government will be able to address that dilemma.
I am particularly pleased that the recently published policy guidance on school admissions says:
Some admissions authorities for primary schools offer places in reception classes to parents before their children are of compulsory school age, in accordance with their published admission arrangements. If a parent is offered and accepts a place during the normal admission round but asks to defer their child's entry to school until he or she is of compulsory school age, the admission authority may agree to the parent's request provided the place is taken up within the same academic year.
That is a most welcome statement, and I hope that the Government will find ways to compensate schools if a child is admitted, but not in place in February when the census is conducted.
Cambridgeshire has been fortunate in benefiting from the money from the reduction in infant class sizes, and the £1.7 million allocated to it this year will provide 69 additional teachers and 11 extra classrooms. Primary schools in Cambridgeshire are among the lowest funded in the country, so that money is particularly welcome. It will virtually eliminate classes of more than 30 for five, six and seven-year-olds in my constituency and throughout Cambridgeshire.
1 hear what the hon. Lady says about five, six and seven-year-olds, but she must be aware that classes for older primary, secondary and nursery children have increased in size since the Labour party came to power. The Smart Start pre-school in Market Deeping in my constituency, which has been providing small class sizes for children in the area for 25 years, is facing closure as a result of Government policy, and people are very angry about that.
Cambridgeshire county council, which is Tory controlled, is one of the problems that my constituency faces. In 1995–96, when there was a Labour-Liberal administration in Cambridgeshire and a Conservative Government, the authority spent £15 million above the education standard spending assessment; last year, the authority spent £6 million above it; and, this year, it is spending £5 million above it. The leader of the Tory county council in Cambridgeshire said on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire this morning that he would like, over the years, to see the council reducing the gap between what it spends on education and what the SSA says it should spend. The implication for my constituency is £4.8 million-worth of cuts. Schools in my constituency will be devastated by that, because it means that, as the Government increase expenditure on education, Cambridgeshire county council is determined to reduce its contribution, and schools will see no benefit from the extra money that the Government are putting into education.
I refer briefly to the national child care information systems, which my hon. Friend the Minister is pioneering. I am pleased that she is basing that work on some of the work that has been done in my constituency. The scheme that I started, called "Opportunity Links", to provide education for parents who wish to return to work has been an outstanding success in Cambridgeshire. It is an internet-based information system, which provides information not only on child care, but on jobs, training and benefits advice. I am pleased to say that there are some 1,300 accesses to that website every week. It is proving to be extremely popular and a useful tool for parents who wish to get back into the workplace.
However, there is still a problem, as perceived by Cambridgeshire county council, about the data protection issues connected with making child minder information available on the internet. The local authority quotes the Children Act guidance, which states:
whilst local authorities have a duty to provide information on childcare provision, the register should not be left on 'open shelves'… This implies that the public need to request access to it through contact with a local authority officer. This guidance was an attempt to prevent people from having access to the register who were not genuinely seeking childcare.
We all recognise the difficulties with paedophile rings and the sensitivity of some child care information. We have got around that problem very well in Cambridgeshire by writing to every child minder and getting a signed agreement from everyone who wishes to have her information published on the internet. I believe that that is the way to proceed. I do not know whether other counties have come across the same problem or interpreted the legislation in the same way, but the issue needs to be addressed.
I welcome wholeheartedly the Government's efforts to improve early years education, which is vital in terms both of raising educational standards and of the health and livelihood of future generations.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this debate. Like other hon. Members, I shall start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on initiating the debate and on her comprehensive and thoughtful speech.
I want to lay my emphasis on the earlier years and take this opportunity to express my strong support for the Pre-School Learning Alliance and the many pre-school groups in my constituency. Pre-school playgroups play a vital role in the education of young children and are of benefit, as I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) acknowledge, not only to children but to parents, in assisting them to teach and encourage learning through play, both in the playschool and at home.
Not long ago, as many as 8,000 children in Bedfordshire attended pre-school playgroups, but it must be recognised that playgroups are under pressure, numbers are dropping and playgroups are closing, because of the combination of factors with which they are challenged. Both sides of the House, particularly the Government, need to rally to help them.
The pressures come from a combination of changes in the funding system, and increased costs and regulation through the working time directive and the minimum wage, and the consequential national insurance requirements. Because schools can now receive funding for four-year-olds —one quite understands that schools wish to maximise their revenue—they are putting pressure on parents to send children in order, it is said, to secure a place at five. I have had too much anecdotal feedback from visiting pre-school groups in my constituency to be in any doubt about that. The effect is not only to put pre-school groups under financial pressure, but to cream off the four-year-olds, who are an important part of three-to-five provision because they provide, in a sense, role models for the younger children in the integrated type of education that pre-school groups provide so effectively. Numbers are therefore falling just at the time when costs and pressures are rising.
The Pre-School Learning Alliance is responding by boldly facing up to the challenge. It does not want to get itself into a political wedge; it wants to rally and increase its numbers. I believe that it will. A great many children throughout the country still do not attend pre-school playgroups and do not get those benefits. We need to reach out to them. In doing so, it will be possible to rebuild pre-school numbers and thus help to solve the problem, provided that we get assistance from local education authorities and the Government recognise that problem.
The point to emphasise about pre-school playgroups is the sheer standard and professionalism of what they provide. I have been interested in this subject since before I entered the House more than 20 years ago. My wife was a professionally trained teacher who taught in Lambeth and Camberwell, and when we had small children she ran a playgroup at our home. I saw the value then, and have seen it ever since. I have attended annual conferences of the Pre-school Playgroups Association in Bedfordshire.
Recently, I visited two pre-school groups in Dunton and Stotfold in north-east Bedfordshire, and I shall visit Potton this Friday. I should emphasise that those pre-schools are inspected by the Office for Standards in Education and have received excellent reports. Their teaching through play is admirably adapted for children between rising three and rising five, and their staff-pupil ratio is only 1:6, which is much better than the average of 1:10, which lower schools and nursery schools can hope to achieve.
In addition to achieving that very low staff-pupil ratio, those pre-schools are attracting mothers and other helpers, who learn and carry the knowledge back home. They are extremely well equipped. I was deeply impressed at the variety of books that they had. Last week was National Book Week and I opened a new book corner in the Poppies playgroup in Stotfold. The pre-schools are equipped not only with books, but with simple computers, which introduce children to computers at such a young age that they come naturally to those essential parts of modern life.
Therefore, let the message go out: pre-school learning has a vital part to play in the education of our children. Both the Government and local education authorities should work closely with the independent pre-school groups. Charitable, voluntary and private provision work together to provide a degree of provision, which no amount of aspiration is likely rapidly to achieve through the state sector, and it is available here and now. They are a vital resource and a wonderful example of how local charitable and private sector initiatives can meet local needs, raise standards and enhance the future for our children.
I wish to use the last few seconds available to me to make a suggestion through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the House authorities. Having been able to take part in this debate and knowing that the winding-up speeches are about to begin, I believe that we should seriously consider having a time limit in well-attended debates of this nature.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on having secured this debate. I commend her on the excellence of her speech in opening the debate on this important topic. It is notable that this is the third debate that we have had in the House in the past two years on pre-school or early years education. It is also notable that all three have been Adjournment debates initiated by Conservative Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) initiated a debate on pre-schools in June 1997 and my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) initiated a debate on nursery education in May 1998.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) made the point that this has been a well-attended debate, although I am interested to note the gender imbalance on the Labour Benches, which suggests a slightly outdated approach to this issue. Some hon. Members hoped that they would be able to contribute to the debate and to raise their concerns. I sincerely hope that the Government will now consider giving Government time to a debate on this important topic to enable all hon. Members to express their concerns about what is happening in pre-schools, and to contribute to the real debate about what should be the intention of pre-school and early years education and what is right for children.
Children's needs must be paramount in our consideration of this issue. What matters is that we provide high-quality early years education for children, and that it is appropriate for those children. We must recognise that pre-school and nursery education are distinctly different from compulsory education at statutory age. We require appropriate provision for children at different ages.
The danger is that young children are increasingly being taken into the primary school framework. Children are being given too formal an education at too early an age. That issue was dealt with in an article in The Times Educational Supplement on 9 April. It referred to nursery children being victims of a "too much, too young" culture and that four-year-olds were at risk of burn-out because of the stresses of formal education. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden made the valid point that boys were particularly likely to be turned off school by this too early formal education.
It is important for the Government to understand that we are not suggesting that we solved this problem when we were in government. We had the problem when vouchers and the passporting of funding were introduced. Does my hon. Friend think that the Minister should carefully study counties such as Dorset, where children who are four in August are taken on for the next year, with full funding? If they are not four, they do not get funding for pre-school in the next term and have to wait until after the new year.
My hon. Friend has expressed a valid concern about the point at which funding cuts in and about four-year-olds who are taken into primary schools. Primary schools are increasingly encouraging four-year-olds to go to their schools by bringing pressures to bear on parents. Labour Members may deny it, but that is happening in the real world.
We should recognise that the provision must be appropriate, that children develop differently and that they have different needs. That is why we want a diversity of provision, so that parents can have a real choice. As a direct result of Government policy, we are faced with two dangers. First, children are being taken into the school framework of formal education at too early an age. Secondly, parental choice is being reduced.
Problems occurred with the nursery voucher scheme, but, far from changing it, the Government abolished it and introduced a grant scheme and early years education partnerships, compounding the problems that had begun to occur. Government figures for January 1998 show that, of four-year-olds in local authority or private and voluntary sector provision, 60 per cent. were in infant classes in maintained primary schools. That is not even 60 per cent. in reception classes: it is 60 per cent. of four-year-olds in reception and other infant classes in maintained primary schools.
Those figures also show that diversity and choice are being reduced. In January 1998, 86 per cent. of four-year-olds were in local authority provision, be it maintained nursery schools, nursery classes or infant classes, with the vast majority being in infant classes rather than in appropriate nursery provision. Only 14 per cent. were in private and voluntary sector pre-schools.
The Department for Education and Employment figures show that, by September 1998, the balance was worse. More than 89 per cent. of four-year-olds were in local authority provision, and less than 10 per cent. were in private and voluntary sector provision. The reality is that pre-schools are closing. In the past two years, 1,500 pre-schools have closed, and there is a danger of a further 1,700 pre-schools closing this year.
I join my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire in recognising the contribution made by pre-schools that are members of the Pre-School Learning Alliance. In its booklet about the importance of pre-schools, "No Chance to Play: No Chance to Learn", the alliance describes children in pre-schools as having
the chance to play and learn with other children, to discover new experiences and to have the opportunity of a good educational start in life.
Pre-schools provide a warm and caring environment and vital learning opportunities for young children. Parents benefit too".
That aspect has been touched on by hon. Members, but not in any detail, and I want to refer to the advantages for parents.
A study undertaken by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education shows that parental involvement in pre-schools leads to more assured parenting, increased confidence and widened horizons in terms of further education and training. It also encourages learning at home through reading and imaginative play. It has an important impact in enabling many parents, predominantly women, who may not otherwise have done so, to go on to further education.
The Pre-School Learning Alliance provides for 40,000 adults—predominantly women and 93 per cent. of them over the age of 25—to enrol each year on courses developed by the alliance. There are progression routes to other qualifications, such as national vocational qualifications in early years care and education.
Pre-schools offer a gateway for parents who may otherwise not consider returning to study. In the sample of parents studied by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, almost half the participants had left school at the age of 16. Their involvement in a pre-school was giving them real opportunities for education that they otherwise would not have had.
Those opportunities are beginning to be denied to parents because the Government's policy is leading to the closure of pre-schools. Children at the age of four are being encouraged to go into reception classes in primary schools. The impact of employment legislation, particularly the loss of income for pre-schools caused by the loss of numbers, is exacerbated in a variety of ways by the increased costs of the minimum wage and the working time directive, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said.
Pre-schools are faced with the decision either to put up charges or to close. What is the Government's answer? The answer from the Minister is that there should be differential charging on the basis of income. A means-tested nursery tax is the Government's answer. They force pre-schools to close, and when they are desperately trying not to close by putting up charges the Government's answer is the equivalent of a means-tested nursery tax. That proves that the Government do not understand what is happening in the real world.
I hope that the Minister will tell us where the money that the Government have promised for pre-school education is going. In the last Education and Employment Question Time, the Minister announced investment of
£8 billion in early education and child care",
which has subsequently been identified, and
£8 billion in providing high-quality and affordable pre-school education".—[Official Report, 18 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 1257.]
That is £16 billion. That is what the record shows: that is in Hansard. I hope that the Minister will tell us where the money is going, because it certainly is not reaching pre-schools.
Pre-schools matter. They provide an important learning environment for children through play, and they provide important benefits for parents. Government policy is closing them down, and Government should stop it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on securing the debate. Nothing is more important to ensuring that young children can develop their full potential than the early years of their lives, and their first experiences in education. I agree with all who have spoken that we do not have enough time to debate this vital issue in the House, but I welcome the opportunity provided by the hon. Lady.
I am particularly delighted by another opportunity—the opportunity to remember the hon. Lady's predecessor, the late lain Mills. He stoutly defended his constituents' interests in the House by publicly opposing, in their dying days, the Conservative Government's policies on early education, although he himself was a Conservative Member of Parliament. Solihull, through the disastrous voucher scheme, lost more money than any other local education authority, and was punished for being more successful. lain Mills could not stomach that: he supported his authority, opposed the Tory Government and denounced the ill-conceived and damaging voucher scheme.
It was the voucher scheme that dealt the most severe blow to the private and voluntary sectors as schools competed for four-year-olds. Having been conceived with the intention of stimulating growth in those sectors, it harmed them and forced closures. Any latter-day sanctimonious defence by Opposition Members of the role of the private and voluntary sectors in early years education should be judged against their record in government. Through ideological stubbornness, they forced the closure of many early education places provided by those sectors.
I will not give way. I have only a few minutes left, and I want to deal with the issues that have been raised.
When this Government took office, we replaced competition with a planned partnership approach that now covers both early education and child care. As my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) said, we need to plan our services for young children.
I am happy to defend our record in government. In our manifesto, we promised that every four-year-old whose parents wanted a free part-time early education place would be entitled to one, and we fulfilled our commitment. The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is wrong about that. We also said—the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was slightly wrong about this—that we would set a target for three-year-olds. We have done that: we are committed to doubling the number of free places for three-year-olds to 66 per cent. by 2002, and we will achieve that target. We are bringing together early education and child care to provide a seamless and coherent service for families, built around children's needs.
No. I will complete my speech.
Let me say this to the hon. Member for Meriden. Of course the interests of the child are central to our concerns; it is because we are putting those interests at the centre of our policy that we are building a proper infrastructure for both early education and child care. Even pre-schools in church halls, which the hon. Lady mentioned, should not be there to support church finances. They should be there to support young children.
May I deal with the issue raised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman?
We value the contribution of pre-schools, particularly because of the unique quality that they bring to the early education sector: parental involvement, with all that it means to the development of young children. I agree with the hon. Member for Maidenhead about that. We know that pre-schools are concerned about closures; we know that they blame closures for the loss of four-year-olds to maintained nurseries; we know that they are worried about the minimum wage. We do not agree with them about the figures relating to closures, but my officials are holding discussions with the Pre-School Learning Alliance to see how we can reconcile our two views. We are taking steps to ensure that both sectors can contribute to the expansion of early years education and child care.
We instruct partnerships to ensure that their plans provide for help for the voluntary and private sectors. Last year, we gave £500,000 to ensure that pre-schools were able to sustain their provision, and we are giving a further £500,000 this year. We have introduced the working families tax credit, which will help individuals with the cost of school care and enable schools to raise their fees. I think it is inappropriate for anyone working with children to be paid less than the minimum wage: our children are too precious. We shall be conducting a review, which will show not what is closing pre-schools, but how the Pre-School Learning Alliance can contribute to the expansion of early years education.
Let me deal with some of the issues relating to quality. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) that some four-year-olds are going to school too early. In my view, it does not matter where children are; what is important is the experience that they undergo, the qualifications of those who work with them and the adult-child ratios involved. That is why we are addressing all the issues of quality that have been raised today.
We are looking at the curriculum, and we have presented proposals for the reform of desirable learning outcomes. I am glad that the hon. Member for Bath welcomed the foundation stage. Our emphasis is on pre-learning schools, and on the importance of children learning to speak, to listen, to concentrate and to work in a group; but we must also recognise that, in the foundation stage, there is a difference between a three-year-old and a rising six. The curriculum must reflect children's development.
As the hon. Member for Meriden said, people are crucial. That is why we have established a national training organisation. It is why we are creating a qualification framework, and putting a large amount of money into training. We are also enhancing the status and importance of early years work, not least through the introduction of the minimum wage and early years education degrees. We are reviewing regulation and inspection, as well as the child protection and data protection issues raised today. We are supporting parents in raising quality, through the sure start programme, excellence centres and other initiatives mentioned in the debate. Quality is essential to early years education. I am glad that hon. Members on both sides of the House accepted that today, and I assure them that we are acting accordingly.
I am delighted that we have had this short, but important, debate on crucial issues. I am grateful to those who have taken part, and, in particular, to the hon. Member for Meriden. We have a good story to tell. This Government recognise the importance of early years education. They have firmly put their money where their mouth is, providing a massive expansion of resources: as the hon. Member for Maidenhead said, we are investing £8 billion over the next four years.
The Government have already fulfilled their pledge to provide a free nursery place for every four-year-old whose parents want one. They have embarked on an ambitious increase in the number of places for three-year-olds. They have not merely talked about a national child care strategy; they are creating one. Over the first 20 months of the Government's life, they have created more new child care places than the last Government managed to create during their long 18 years in office.
Investing in the early years of a child's life makes sense. It makes sense for the child, ensuring that we give all children the opportunity to develop their full potential. It makes sense for society, helping us to build an inclusive society by promoting success and preventing alienation and failure. It makes sense for the taxpayer, in that for every pound that we invest in a child's early years we shall save many pounds later on everything from support for a child with special educational needs to the payment of income support.
We will pursue our policies on early years education. They are right, important and necessary. We shall be happy to be judged on our record, and our achievements, in this crucial area of public policy.