Pre-School Nursery Provision

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 25th January 2000.

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Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 3:00 pm, 25th January 2000

I wish to talk about pre-school education, which is vital to many since almost 100,000 children are under the age of four.

Education begins in the home, and in a child’s early days he or she has a keen ability to absorb material, to learn and to become educated. It has been proved in scientific tests that children whose parents stay at home do better in later years. It is believed that children whose parents stayed at home during their early years can do 10% better in their O-level and A-level examinations. However, many people now go out to work, and a significant number of them are single parents.

In Northern Ireland there are 310,000 women in the workplace, of whom 155,000 have children. The number of women working is expected to increase by 24,000 by 2006. Fifty-six per cent of children under four have mothers who work. There is also a large number of single parents, many of whom are also out working, so their children do not have even one parent at home on a regular basis.

Pre-school education should not be regarded by parents merely as a child minding provision; it should be for the benefit of the children themselves. Pre-school education helps children to develop their social skills and interact with others. It provides them with an early opportunity to mix with others in their peer group. Children who have not had the opportunity to mix with other children often have social problems and problems with mixing. Parents can have severe problems when there is only one child in the family, but when that child starts school he can be much easier to handle and control. If children mix with their peers at an early age, they gain important social skills.

Structured play is very educational, and we should be reviewing the age at which children start their education. In Scandinavian countries children do not start school until they are six or seven. This is a big and emotive issue. I do not have any hard or fast opinions on it, but it is thought that by the time those children are 10 or 11 they are more advanced educationally than the ones who start school at four or five. We need to look at the age at which children should start school and at whether it is beneficial for it to be four or five rather than to have nursery education for a longer period ,during which there is provision for structured play.

We must also look at the current conditions in pre-school playgroups. Many of these groups that give a great service to the community operate in facilities which are not good enough. Many of them work in church halls, parochial halls or Orange halls, and they were not built with children in mind. They do not have proper facilities or heating systems, and, with the best will in the world, they never will have.

However, they have been there for the pre-school playgroups, who provide this vital service, but it would be better if we could provide nursery education for the children.

We also have to consider the qualifications of those who are working with them. Many playgroup staff do not have proper qualifications. Only half the staff in a group must have the necessary qualifications. Obviously everyone should be adequately qualified. That would be to the children’s benefit.

The United Kingdom has the ninth-lowest number of children in playgroups in the European Union. In Northern Ireland last year we had, pro rata, half the number of nursery places available in England. That is how, up to last year, we compared with France, Belgium and Denmark.

The Government recognised the need for nursery places as far back as 1977 when Lord Melchett, under the then Labour Administration, sought for us parity with the rest of the United Kingdom, and 22 years later the issue is still not being adequately addressed.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir UUP

Is the hon Member aware that Lord Melchett also gave a pledge to provide one year’s nursery education for the children of every parent who wanted it? That pledge too is still unfulfilled, in spite of the passage of more than 20 years.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I understand that Lord Melchett was concerned at the low level of pre-school provision and announced the setting-up of an interdepartmental group to examine the matter. By 1999 his plans had obviously not come to fruition. However, by 1994 we had moved on from the days of Lord Melchett, and a policy of early-years provision for Northern Ireland was introduced. At that time the aim of the policy was to provide one year’s nursery education for all those under compulsory school age whose parents wanted them to have it.

There were serious difficulties with making progress on that under the Conservative Administration. We were promised a pre-school voucher scheme in Northern Ireland, but it was withdrawn at the last minute by the then Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew. It would not have been ideal anyway, and it was not going to be particularly beneficial to Northern Ireland. However, under the Labour Government, we have seen substantial improvement. While I do not agree with most things that the Labour Government have done, including the introduction of tuition fees for tertiary education, I do have to give them credit for improving the provision of nursery places.

By this year, it is expected, 75% of children will be in nursery places in Northern Ireland as a result of the introduction of the Children First Programme by John McFall in February 1999. John McFall announced the spending of £51 million over three years: £27·4 million for a pre-school expansion programme; £10 million for the new-opportunities fund for out-of-school childcare projects; £9 million for the Training and Employment Agency; and £5 million for the childhood fund. The new Minister of Education recently announced a spending sum of £38 million, but we need some clarification on how much of this was the money that John McFall had already announced in February 1999.

We also need to look at the 25% of children who do not get places, and I raised this matter yesterday with the Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon. The Robson indices can lead to discrimination against areas where deprivation is not recognised on a ward-to-ward basis and where pockets of deprivation are not recognised.

Tonagh Primary School, in my constituency of Lagan Valley, sought a nursery unit. Some 34% of the children at that school receive free school meals. Its single-parent families are believed to be of the order of 30%, and unemployment is at about 25%. A case was made to the South Eastern Education and Library Board. In the first year the primary school was told that only a 52-place unit was available and that as Tonagh required just a 26-place unit, it would not be granted one. Apparently 52 places were available in the Tonagh area, but in the maintained sector. Tonagh primary school is in the controlled sector, and the parents did not want to send their children to the maintained-sector school.

Parents who want to send their children to the maintained sector cannot do so because on the ward-by-ward basis, the places are not available. This means that the 52 places that are available in the area are being filled not only by people in the area but by people outside it. This issue must be examined.

We must also examine the role of the Pre-school Education Advisory Group (PEAG) and its accountability in issues such as this. Until last year, people on the South Eastern Education and Library Board were told officially that the group was not accountable to them. They were informed recently that the minutes are available for ratification and not just there to be noted. The confusion over the role of the PEAG and to whom it is accountable must be cleared up.

The lower provision of nursery places in rural areas must also be looked at. A substantial number of places is available for children in reception classes in small country schools, but nursery places are not available. Apparently it is Government policy to discontinue reception classes, so what is to be done for the children in rural areas?

Under the INTERREG scheme six areas were allowed to have special access arrangements for children in rural areas on a trial basis. What was the outcome of that? If the trial was successful, will it be made available to other areas? Obviously, the problems that prevail in the hills of Dromara are much the same as those in the border areas where this INTERREG scheme was introduced, and the ability of parents to take children to nursery schools is much the same.

Some questions need to be answered on plans for the year 2000-01, when, it is claimed , 75% of nursery places will be available. Will the schools that have the opportunity to provide nursery places be able to fulfil their obligations and have those places ready, particularly in areas where capital projects have to be undertaken? Will there be enough trained staff? What are the proposals for the 25% of children for whom pre-school nursery places will not be available?

It must be remembered that under targeting social needs, many people have been left out. In my area there are people who cannot afford to pay for private nursery provision, yet they do not live in large, deprived estates. There has been a tendency to direct money towards the large estates, and that is detrimental to other areas.

A family in which both parents work may have approximately £1,600 per month after tax. These people could be described as being well off.

However, when their mortgage is paid they are left with £1,200. Taking into account the costs associated with running a car, that figure reduces to £800. Once they have paid their rates and telephone and electricity bills they are left with £650. When they pay £450 for food and clothing they are left with £200 per month. That is the amount of money those people are left with in a month. Are they then supposed to pay for nursery education and leave nothing for themselves? That sort of situation must be addressed. We need to see a fulfilment of the policy proposed in 1994 that pre-school nursery places be available to all who wish to take them.

Photo of Mr Tom Benson Mr Tom Benson UUP 3:15 pm, 25th January 2000

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this important subject. Nursery education for all four-year-olds is not a luxury but a necessity. The Labour Government have made it a target, and I am sure that the parties here today unanimously support the objective of nursery education for all. Educationalists and parents vouch for the benefits of a preparatory pre-school year. That is the year during which children begin to practise the important habits of relating to their peers, listening with attention and gaining a measure of independence.

The Government have gone some way towards honouring their election promise with an injection of capital to provide more nursery-school places. However, many parents face disappointment when trying to enrol their children for full-time places, and nursery schools are forced by this shortage to create artificial and sometimes unfair criteria which rule out the hard-working, tax-paying families who are the backbone of society.

The Labour Government’s idea that nursery-school places must be reserved for children from so-called socially deprived backgrounds is discriminatory. Surely, in this day of equality, the children of parents who work must have the same opportunity to get nursery-school places as everyone else. The Government’s new guidelines force the governors of nursery schools to favour children as young as two years and three months from socially deprived backgrounds, children who may still be in nappies, rather than the four-year olds who would benefit from pre-school education.

Do the Government want to turn our specialist nursery schools into glorified day-care centres? This policy is obviously a sop for those on the left of the Labour Party, and its implications cannot have been properly considered. Why do they not ask the opinions of principals and teachers and listen to the voices of experience and good sense? There is no fair answer to the question of apportioning a limited number of places. The Government must make nursery-school education a statutory provision for all four-year-olds.

All primary schools with a roll of at least 200 pupils and with an annual intake of at least 28 should be given a nursery unit within, or attached to, the school, according to need. Each unit should be capable of providing full-time places for all children. At the moment, most children are only present for two and a half hours each day, and that does not allow a mother to take up a part-time job. So much for the Labour Party’s commitment to encouraging mothers back into employment.

Completion of the long-term goal of free full-time nursery education for all four-year-olds will involve considerable expense. All new schools or schools being refurbished will have to have a nursery department provided. There will also be a need for new purpose-built nursery units in existing primary schools. In the short term we can make savings and take practical steps towards achieving our goals. A number of existing schools, which have stabilised their rolls at less than full capacity, have spare classroom accommodation, which could easily be adapted for nursery provision.

I was glad to see recently in the press that the Minister has pledged £38 million to fund early-years education. Is this new money? If so, I take it to be the first step towards achieving our goal of full-time nursery education for all four-year-olds.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s decision to expand the pre-school education programme to cover three out of every four children. But what happens to the one in four who will not be covered? Every child should have the right to pre-school education if his parents wish him to have it.

Mr Benson talked about the entry criteria that are laid down at nursery level. The practice at present is that parents who are on benefits get priority over working parents. This raises two issues. First, parents on benefits feel that they are being stigmatised in some way, and at the same time it is implied that their children are less intelligent than those whose parents are working.

The second issue is that of discrimination against single parents who work part-time and claim family credit, which still exists as a benefit, or, in the future, the working tax credit, let alone the discrimination against single parents who are working.

Serious thought needs to be given to the implementation of this programme. There is concern in the voluntary and independent sector that some providers who have striven to maintain a high-quality pre-school service will be displaced by capital investment in the statutory sector. This would create a two-tier system within the pre-school expansion programme. The Minister has stated that the voluntary sector can apply for capital funding and that more than half the places secured will be in the voluntary sector, but one of his advisers has told me that many of these groups are within the trust, board and private sectors.

The funding of renovations, new buildings and extensions in the statutory sector by the Department of Education raises the possibility of the displacement of smaller groups which are accredited by the Northern Ireland Pre-school Playgroup Association (NIPPA) — for instance, the Broughshane and district pre-school group, which has provided an excellent service to the community for 26 years. The Gracehill and Galgorm pre-school group also stands to be displaced by statutory nurseries. These are cross-community groups which have provided excellent services for some time.

Furthermore, I am concerned that if nursery or pre-school groups are mainly situated within primary schools, they will be identified with the particular community served by each school and lose their cross-community aspect.

It is important to consider funding the specialist support that NIPPA provides in the same way that the Curriculum Advice Support Service is funded for the statutory sector. The pre-school expansion programme has had a dramatic impact on NIPPA staff, and this has had a negative effect as NIPPA advisers no longer have time to meet the needs of their members who are not within the PEAG. NIPPA advisers were previously able to provide a comprehensive service to their members, but the five hours early-years specialist requirement services to other members has now had to be restricted.

The impact of the programme is particularly evident in rural areas where NIPPA advisers, some of whom work only part-time, have been put under pressure by an increasing workload. In some cases, a single adviser is responsible for up to 30 groups within the pre-school expansion programme. There is a danger that as well as having a two-tier system for the statutory and voluntary sectors, there will be a two-tier system for rural and urban areas. I call for an interim review to consider pre-school provision in rural areas. NIPPA will not be able to continue without funding. It has identified a need for an additional five early-years specialists to relieve the pressure, one in each of the education and library board areas.

While, as I have said, I welcome the increase in the number of places in pre-school education and appreciate the recognition of its value, I respectfully ask the Minister to consider carefully the role of voluntary groups in this field and to ensure that the pre-school expansion programme is inclusive and not exclusive.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the fact that one of the first Adjournment debates of the new millennium is focusing on children and children’s issues. Like Ms Lewsley, I give a guarded welcome to the Minister’s announcement last week of £38 million for the pre-school education expansion programme. This programme is designed to ensure that three out of every four children under the age of five will have a place in pre-school education if their parents so wish.

The reason that I give this guarded welcome to the announcement is that I believe that all children should have a place in pre-school education as of right. The funding also sends out a clear message to all, whether in the voluntary, community or statutory sectors that pre-school education is the way forward. There is much research and documentation to show that these programmes are a valuable stepping stone to the formal education system. One of the reasons for this is the flexibility of the pre-school system, which enables children to learn through the medium of play at a time when a child is more open to learning.

Pre-school education also responds to the needs of the community, and particularly to those with special needs or from disadvantaged areas. It has been shown that children who have had pre-school education are better prepared for school life and less likely to develop emotional or behavioural problems later on, which also has a knock-on effect.

Pre-school education also helps mothers who want to return to work or to the education system, and problems with this were mentioned earlier. The integrated approach of some groups, offering crèche and day-care facilities and, in some cases, after-school provision, plays an important part in this.

One of the problems associated with pre-school education in the community sector is the uncertainty of long-term funding. For a long time the North has had the worst record in western Europe for childcare provision and pre-school education, and such money can be a first step towards addressing this need.

Sinn Féin supports the funding of pre-school education, which targets areas of social need and ensures that children in the most disadvantaged areas can benefit from a positive start in life. The 1998 SACHR report recommended that there should be free nursery education for all three-to-four-year-olds. I am glad that the Minister of Education is present. I would be interested to hear what plans he and his Department have to expand the pre-school education expansion programme further. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Alliance

Like other Members, I am very glad to have this opportunity to discuss this very important part of life. Other Members have given an historical analysis and mentioned figures and problems, but I would like to make a few general remarks on the subject and underline why it must be given priority.

I too welcome the Minister’s announcement last week of £38 million for the pre-school sector. This injection of cash will mean that three out of four children will be able to enjoy schooling in a nursery-school environment. However, as others have said, we should work towards getting provision for four out of four.

The advantages of pre-school education are obvious — happy, confident and considerate children, who, it is to be hoped, will develop the good habits learnt in nursery school during the rest of their time in education and end up mature, conscientious and tolerant adults. The Alliance Party has campaigned on this subject for a long time, and I have seen at first hand the good results of pre-school experience, especially in areas of disadvantage and deprivation.

As Ms Ramsey has said, various projects here and in England have shown that if young people are introduced to schooling early, it provides them with the basis for educational training and with an introduction to social skills, such building on relationships and working together with other children in a congenial atmosphere.

Literacy and numeracy are taught in an informal way at this stage. This inspires confidence in the children and gives them a basic knowledge and appreciation of their environment. They can deal with issues such as litter control in a friendly way. Play and all the other things that children do are included in the programme.

I know that, as Mr Benson said, there are problems with baseline assessment and curriculum guidance, but the children are introduced to everyday items such as pencils, pens and drawing equipment, and they are taught how to use them properly. They are even taught about furniture and the different types of chairs that are available. This type of education can be very helpful if the children do not get it at home.

Pre-school education also enhances children’s personal, social and emotional development, and when they go to primary school they are already confident about building relationships with teachers and fellow pupils. They have an idea too about discipline, as it is part of the daily programme, and they will have developed some idea of what is acceptable behaviour in class. This all helps to give a constructive foundation for life, and it should be accessible to and possible for all children. It should not be looked on as a means of supervising children while their parents are at work; rather, it should be regarded as an integral part of their development and lifelong learning.

For far too long Northern Ireland has been at the bottom of the pre-school provision league, and we must improve that situation radically. The Department of Education and the education boards must provide sufficient places in the primary-school reception classes, mothers-and-toddlers groups, voluntary groups and cross-community groups that exist. The Department should also help to set up such groups in areas where they do not exist and provide the necessary expertise to enable them to continue.

It is a child’s right, as other Members have said, to have an education system that will help him realise his potential. Pre-school education provides the best possible start, and it should be open to all children, whatever their background.

We must ensure that we have the necessary funding to enable us to implement and maintain what is required by law, to provide proper facilities, equipment and trained staff. I concur with the views expressed by Ms Lewsley about the lack of teaching staff — one could have the children and the places but not the staff. This problem must be looked at.

We must not continue to be dependent on European funding. The Minister said that pre-school education provides the foundation for later achievement. That is vital in the drive to raise educational standards. We should encourage parents to make use of the additional places available this year, and I hope that those places will also be available in future years. I hope too that the Minister will continue to support and finance this important vehicle for our children’s future.

Photo of Mr Patrick Roche Mr Patrick Roche NIUP 3:30 pm, 25th January 2000

I would like to highlight the complicated mosaic that exists in terms of provision of and access to pre-school education.

We have nursery schools, nursery units within primary schools, playgroups and day nurseries. Education and library boards fund the first two, while the other two are funded partly privately and partly by the Government.

On top of this is a complicated mosaic of access. With regard to places, first preference is given to children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds who are four years of age in the July or August of their pre-school year; second preference is given to all other socially disadvantaged children; third preference is given to all other children with July and August birthdays in their pre-school year; and, finally, all other children in their pre-school year are considered.

I stress the complicated combination of provision and access because it seems to give rise to two crucial problems. First, there is the problem of equality of access: a child of four, in his pre-school year, whose birthday is not in July or August may get no pre-school education at all.

Pre-school education is of value in providing a child with intellectual stimulus and social skills. For instance, it teaches a child how to take his coat off and hang it up, and so on. Children are taught a whole range of things that may sound trivial but are very important for preparing them for primary school and for enabling them to be intellectually and socially equipped to meet and get on with other children. If pre-school education is important, it is important that we have equality of access to it and that children are not excluded from it merely because of when their birthday happens to fall.

Secondly, as has been mentioned, this access provision now discriminates against parents who are not considered to be socially deprived. That is not acceptable.

The implication of these two considerations — that a child may be excluded because of when his birthday falls or because of the social or economic status of his parents — combined with real value of pre-school education, makes it logical for us to drive towards making pre-school education available free to all.

Another problem that arises out of the complicated mosaic of provision and access is unequal provision. We cannot argue that there is equality of provision. I make the point because of the different educational qualifications that are required for these different types of provision. For example, the nursery schools and nursery units must be staffed by qualified teachers and assistants who have the equivalent of an NVQ level 3, whereas playgroup or day-nursery assistants do not have to have any specific qualifications at all.

Now, if qualifications are important — and of course they are important — and if there is a significant difference in the qualifications required, one cannot argue that the quality of the output is the same. We need to standardise the qualifications required and we need to ensure that there is no discrimination in access to this important dimension of education.

This debate is categorised by a combination of normality and a civilised concern for the educational well-being of children. But above that façade of normality and civilised concern a dark cloud is hovering: the position of the Minister of Education. The last time I saw him interviewed on television he was openly talking — in fact, boasting — what he called his "years on the run". Now, in all the standard histories of the IRA — and there have been some very significant ones recently — those years that Mr McGuinness referred to are categorised as involving the leadership of the Provisional IRA in Londonderry.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. This is very wide of the mark, given the subject of the Adjournment debate. The Member mentioned the civilised way in which the debate was being conducted. I trust that he will not find himself being the one who changes that.

Photo of Mr Patrick Roche Mr Patrick Roche NIUP

I take your point, Mr Speaker.

It is important to be concerned about equality of provision because we want to ensure that we get equality of output. And here we have to consider the qualifications of those who teach. However, the situation to which I referred is a matter of extreme concern to a vast number of decent, civilised and law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

In spite of some of the comments made by the last Member who spoke, all Members are agreed on this issue. I trust that the press will take note of this rarity: we are all agreed that this provision should be available to all children.

I also wish to welcome support from wherever it comes, whether from the Labour Government or from the new Minister of Education. Support is very valuable, whether new or old.

I want to acknowledge Northern Ireland’s absolutely disgraceful track record on state-aided childcare. There is no doubt that the United Kingdom lags behind the remainder of the European Union on childcare and that Northern Ireland lags behind all other regions of the United Kingdom. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Northern Ireland has had the worst pre-school provision for children.

I am the mother of an eight-year-old child, and I have been through the system. The greatest investment that we can make is in our children’s education, most particularly in those early years.

As a member of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, I recognise the value of this investment. We can speak of American investment coming in and going to industry, but until we get to grips with the value of investing in our children we will have our priorities wrong. Children’s education is most important.

It has been said that research proves that nursery education gives children not only a better start in life but a better life in general. It has also been proved that a child who has had a nursery education will face fewer criminal charges in later life. He or she will also have fewer social problems, such as teenage pregnancy, and be less welfare-dependent. Investment in the early years pays off in later life.

I agree with Mr Roche’s reference to a "complicated mosaic". I call it a plethora. The major problem is that there are so many different types of provision, from day-care centres to nursery schools and other facilities. There is a possible lack of understanding and awareness of the system and, perhaps as a result, a lack of access to existing provision. There is a need for parents to have a better understanding of how the system works — from créches to day-care centres, to playgroups, to the nursery schools and to school classrooms themselves. This might be achieved through streamlining or integration of the existing provision, as was mentioned earlier by Sue Ramsey.

With regard to the plethora, I welcome the targeting social needs (TSN) initiative which will aim to help children in the most disadvantaged areas before dealing with all children. I do not think that this has been mentioned today. Another very important point which must not be overlooked is the involvement of parents. Parents need to be taught how to teach their children. A good example of this is the greater Shankill Partnership early-years project and its home visiting scheme, which is used to teach parents how to help children to play.

I remember telling European civil servants in Brussels about the situation in some areas of Northern Ireland when I was involved in the task force that set up the European special support programme for peace and reconciliation. Some children in deprived areas were attending their first day at school still in nappies. I do not know how surprising that is to Members. However, the explanation was that their mothers were working and their fathers unemployed and the fathers had not got to grips with the nappy-changing regime. Thus the children were going to school in nappies. The education of the parents of young children is just as important as the education of the children themselves.

There is a second aspect that is extremely important. While we welcome this approach and the increased funding, which must be available for all children, we must be careful not to dilute, destabilise or ultimately destroy this provision. There has been talk of the importance of qualifications and the problems of day-care groups and playgroups. Mr Poots mentioned the lack of qualifications, as did others. This is an extremely important point. Nursery-school education must be looked at specifically because that is where there are trained teachers. One would never put a less well-trained doctor in charge of a child in hospital than the doctor who looks after an older person. People dealing with children need proper qualifications.

Mr Poots and Mr Benson mentioned the importance of children being able to mix with peers, which leads to better social skills and fewer social problems. However, there is another very important issue that has not yet been raised — the integrated education system. When we talk about children mixing with their peers we must address the matter of Catholic and Protestant children being educated together. In the past nursery schools were not attached to primary schools, and we had stand-alone nursery schools which both Catholic and Protestant children attended. Now we are moving into a situation — and the Minister should look seriously at this — where nursery schools are being attached. Mr Benson talked about every primary school having a nursery school. However, that would only provide for either Catholics or Protestants and thus encourage separation. We must consider stand-alone nurseries to promote reconciliation. The Good Friday Agreement says

"An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing."

This I know well, for we were involved in putting it into the Good Friday Agreement, and it was definitely meant to include pre-school education. The lack of mixed housing is the problem. There are large estates with 90% to 100% of one religion or the other, and those estates need schools. Much more should be done to promote mixed housing.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 3:45 pm, 25th January 2000

May I draw the Member’s attention to the fact that she has now been on her feet for almost twice as long as any other Member, apart from the Member who moved the motion. I ask her to draw her remarks to a close.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I will. I consider this an important issue, which is why I have taken so long.

My final point concerns career development for women head teachers. If one bolts nursery schools on to primary schools, there will be fewer opportunities for career development, since many women become head teachers of nursery schools.

I am surprised and delighted that we are all in agreement. Let us not have 75%; let us not have 95% — let us have 100% nursery-school provision.

Photo of Mrs Joan Carson Mrs Joan Carson UUP

Some people do not know what a nursery school, or a play school or a childcare facility is, and that needs to be dealt with, but it is not what I am going to speak about today. I am a nursery-school trained teacher and an ex-primary school principal. I have some background information, and I found nothing to bar a nursery-school teacher from going into primary education. I am also a governor of a nursery school.

I welcome the Labour Party’s initiative to provide pre-school education for four-year-olds, including children in Northern Ireland. The programme has been targeted at socially disadvantaged children, but I hope that good pre-school education will be provided for all children whose parents want it. There was general euphoria, as I would describe it, following the Minister’s announcement last Thursday of what appeared to be a new initiative to establish 9,000 new pre-school places and provide an additional £38 million. However, it was not obvious to some that the Department of Education has been funding this very initiative since September 1998. After two years, approximately 4,000 of these places have already been filled.

I welcome this ongoing initiative and look forward to the Department, in partnership with the education boards, delivering the target of 9,000 places by September 2001. I welcome the fact that it is anticipated that, from September this year, free school places will be available to some 75% of those eligible.

Historically there has been good cross-community enrolment in nursery schools and units, though mainly in the controlled sector, and this should be encouraged. Given the falling birth rate, any existing resources, such as accommodation, should be fully utilised before new capital funding is considered.

Concerns have been raised about places being found for children with special educational needs. I note the admissions criteria set out in the Statutory Instrument No 29 of 1999. They allow each school the option of giving children with special educational needs in their final pre-school year priority over any other child who is not from socially disadvantaged circumstances and who does not have a July or August birthday.

The Department for Education accepts that children with statemented, special educational needs can be admitted over and above the enrolment numbers. I hope that that information will go some way towards satisfying those who are concerned about priority being given to children from socially disadvantaged circumstances.

The initiative to increase pre-school places should not be seen as the state’s taking on a parental or childminding role. The parents and the home have priority, and parents must accept that they play the major role in their children’s development and education. We have nursery schools, but we must remember that home is the priority.

I expect the Department of Education to monitor standards and give priority to ensuring that the professional teaching staff have adequate support staff with relevant childcare training. I am in favour of good practice in all establishments — and I mean all establishments — and of providing facilities that ensure the educational advancement of our children. I hope that the Department of Education ensure that the provision of these pre-school places meets the needs of all sections of our community.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Mrs Carson for clarifying the different elements involved in this matter. It was badly needed. I also welcome the Minister’s recent announcement promising funding for pre-school children.

The value and benefits of pre-school education and childcare are well recognised and provide a good foundation for subsequent educational success. Some research indicates that most people learn the bulk of whatever they are going to learn by the time they are four years old. In the 1960s one enthusiastic philosopher indicated that you might learn as much as 80% of all you are going to learn by the time you are four. If one considers the mechanics of walking, talking, listening, tasting, differentiating size, shapes and colours, one begins to appreciate the enormity of the learning that goes on in those formative years.

However, that information and research such as this was available to the Department of Education in the 1960s, yet only now, as we move into the year 2000, are we getting some kind of positive response to it. Free places for 75% of children are certainly very welcome. Of course, we all look forward to the time when there are free places for 100%.

I suppose we must welcome the indication from the Department. Perhaps, now we will be able to get movement, particularly on accessibility to and the quality of childcare and education and development of the service in general.

I do not subscribe to Mr Benson’s view that social disadvantage is not an acceptable criterion. All modern educational research identifies social disadvantage as a major reason for many children having learning difficulties. Of course, things get more difficult when social disadvantage is used in the wrong way. We have come across examples of this in the allocation of nursery-school places, when very young children "hop over" others who would be more suitable for pre-school education because of the social-disadvantage clause. The solution is, as Mr Benson and everyone else have said, that we facilitate access for all children.

This matter is very important, not only for the educational development of children, but for the personal development opportunities of women, the economic welfare of many households and the economic development of a region. They all interlock. As some Members have already said, women may take 70% of new jobs over the next six years. The Strategy 2010 steering group emphasised the need to develop specific measures to encourage the full participation of women. The draft proposals co-ordinated by the Department of Finance and Personnel for the next round of European Union structural funding specifically identify support for pre-school education as a part of gender equality in employment.

The goal of improving access to childcare and education for pre-school children also means that there will be a need for more well-qualified and experienced workers.

Quality among those workers is patchy. Recent audits by health and social services boards estimate that as many as 50% of current workers have no relevant qualifications. The Training and Employment Agency is committed to achieving up to 1,500 training places under the New Deal. The recent formation of a working committee on planning review and training provision is taking forward the development of a training strategy with the aim, according to the childcare strategy, of providing the skills that are going to be needed by the existing and future day-care workforce in Northern Ireland.

The intention of improving the pool of quality workers raises a question about trainees. For trainees to achieve a suitable standard, facilities to enable them to get plenty of childcare experience must be open to them.

The capacity issue is significant, given the relatively small travel-to-work distances in rural areas.

There must be consistent local training capacity across rural communities to ensure that quality staff are available. That is a big issue, but how can such capacity be achieved when current regulations stipulate that only one trainee can be taken on per 20 children? That creates all types of problems, and I have referred examples to the Minister. The regulations that are currently imposed on some centres should be relaxed. At present in my trust area two fully qualified workers, the cost of whom is likely to put small nurseries out of business, must attend each room. The alternative is to force day-care centres to increase the size of rooms to take more children, and that would not be conducive to good education or to the quality of care that is necessary for pre-school education.

In rural areas a building is often used, particularly in the voluntary and private sectors, for pre-school nursery education. One argument is that the smaller the room, the better the teaching and learning. However, two people are required for each room although only one trainee is allowed per 20 children. Consequently everyone is put in a big room with the required number of staff, or people less qualified than even a trainee are employed. There are arguments for encouraging an increase in the number of trainees or for relaxing the regulations in a sensible and reasonable way.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP 4:00 pm, 25th January 2000

I welcome the opportunity that Edwin Poots has provided for a debate on this important issue. The debate is timely, and the response shows that the matter is important to the people we represent. In his recent statement the Minister of Education outlined his spending plans for pre-school education for the next four years.

One of the Assembly’s roles is to give Members an opportunity to get behind the gloss of departmental statements and the spin which the Minister and the Department are trying to put on them. We must ask some hard questions about the policies and about the content of the Minister’s statement.

I want to ask a number of questions, which, I hope, will be addressed later. The first is to do with the £38 million that the Minister has announced for the next four years. This time last year, the Minister announced £24·4 million for three years. The impression that was given in that statement was that this was brand new money, additional funding for pre-school education in the Province. That, of course, is typical New Labour spin. It announces spending programmes in different places five or six times over, and it looks as though a lot is happening.

Sinn Féin has adopted many of New Labour’s characteristics. Its desire for control is well-known, as Mr McElduff can tell us from his police liaison experience in his constituency.

Perhaps the Minister can tell us why eight special advisers have been appointed, some of them with no experience in their appointed fields. Is this yet another example of the New Labour tendencies emanating from the Department of Education? I would be interested to know how much of this is new money that is being injected into the system.

Secondly, on the detail of the scheme itself, one of the statements in the document on which much of the present policy is based is that children who have good pre-school education, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with special needs, are prepared for school and learn more quickly.

Some Members have already taken up the issue of disadvantaged backgrounds. We had a debate in the Assembly some time ago on the criterion which was used to deem whether people came from a disadvantaged background. The current criterion severely disadvantages and discriminates against parents in low-paid employment who do not live in areas where there is a cluster of wards which meet the normal deprivation indices. Nevertheless, their youngsters could benefit from pre-school education.

I hope that this will be sorted out as the number of places expands. However, I still believe that that criterion is faulty, because it means that many youngsters who should benefit from pre-school education are unable to gain access to it. That can put their parents’ jobs in jeopardy, and if they are unable to work, they will not be able to pay for a place for their child.

I hope that the targeting of new places will help to address that problem. I would be interested to know how many of these additional places will be available to the other category of people mentioned in the Government’s document — those with special needs. Again there is no indication of that in the statement. It is a point of detail, but something on which I would like more information.

The third issue that I wish to address concerns the targeting of these places. As has already been stated, the provision of nursery places across the Province is not even — in some areas it is as low as 50%. In some areas parents queued outside schools all night to get places for their children because the number of places was so low. According to the plan which has been drawn up, there should be an indication, on a year-to-year basis, of where these places are to be provided in each education and library board area. We have the figures for 1998-99, and I hope that we will soon have the figures for the period covered by the money which has been announced by the Minister.

Finally, I wish to mention the criteria under which new nursery places are going to be provided. I do not want to highlight any particular constituency problem — I shall do that with the Department. However, there appears to be an inconsistency. An East Belfast school, which applied for a nursery unit as part of its new development scheme, was turned down on the basis that urban areas must be able to provide or have a demand for 52 places. The Minister has confirmed that, but it was pointed out to him that some new schools have been built that provide only 26 nursery places. The answer was that this is only in rural areas.

I am sure that the Member for Londonderry will be surprised to know that Oakwood Integrated Primary School is in a rural area. This year it has been given funds to build a nursery unit with 26 places only while a controlled primary school in Belfast has been turned down because, in an urban area, the minimum number of places is 52.

I do not know whether Omagh is regarded as rural, semi-rural or urban, but in Omagh, an integrated primary school is getting funds for 26 places this year. The Minister must justify the funding of new nursery units for 26 youngsters in one sector while he imposes a limit of 52 places in another sector. He knows full well that a small estate school could never provide, and will never have a demand for, 52 places. In effect, in certain areas of the Province, the controlled sector is being discriminated against.

These are some of my questions on the Minister’s statement on pre-school education, and I trust that we will get some answers before the end of the debate.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

A Chathaoirligh. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an díospóireacht seo. Is maith an rud é go n-aithnítear chomh tábhachtach agus atá an réamhscolaíocht sa lá atá inniu ann.

I welcome the Minister to this important debate, and I welcome the relative unanimity and consensus among the Members who have spoken. So far the debate has been mostly positive and substantial in tone and content. I also wish to commend the initiative taken by Mr Poots, who tabled the motion.

The value of pre-school and nursery education should be placed in the context of children’s rights. The well-being of children requires political action at the highest level. Sinn Féin is determined to take that action, and it makes a solemn commitment to give high priority to the rights of children, as did 71 heads of state at a world summit for children in New York, which approved the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"Educaré" means to cherish the growth of the young, or in Irish oideachas which means to foster parenting, nurturing what is natural. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí: praise the youth and it will develop. Those philosophies or maxims point the way for us all in this debate. The rights and concerns of children are crucial. They have particular needs, which require special measures, and they must be respected. Children need to be heard for their self-esteem to be fostered and for them to develop.

As Members have said, it is universally acknowledged — and this is supported by research — that there is real value in pre-school education. A safe, secure, happy and stimulating environment is crucial and conducive to a child’s personal development. Social interaction, learning social and motor skills through free and structured play, and showing consideration for others are important at an age when young minds have a huge capacity for learning — young minds that are exploding with ideas at an age of curiosity and discovery. Perhaps what one wants to say is decided in childhood, and the rest of one’s life is spent trying to say it. That is the philosophy that guides the need to nurture young people in pre-school education.

Ms Morrice commended the integrated sector. I support that, and I commend the virtues and benefits that accrue from the bilingual approach and naíscoileanna. It has a proven advantage, and it is a growing sector. Bilingualism, as is evident in Wales, is very positive. The Good Friday Agreement is the context in which we should view our presence here today. It contains specific commitments to Irish-medium education at pre-school and other levels.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement of the £38 million pre-school expansion programme which will be effective from September. All sectors, including controlled, maintained, integrated and Irish-medium will benefit. This is an enlightened and positive announcement, and it is qualified by a determination on the part of Sinn Féin to accelerate towards universal availability of free nursery or play-group places in a range of settings — private, voluntary and statutory. That is contained in our party’s ‘Programme for Government’, our Clár Rialtais.

From September, the programme will apply to three out of four pre-school children — 75%. Questions are being asked about how we will get to total emancipation, but this is an improvement on the situation in February of last year, when there was 60% availability, and on the situation three years ago, when the figure was 45%.

Some Members spoke about the wise investment that it represents in our children and in society as a whole. It is wise even from an economic prospective, although that is not how I would choose to look at it.

On children from disadvantaged backgrounds, I support Mr ONeill’s point that the criteria are a useful indicator. Until there is universal access, parents on income support should enjoy some priority. I have visited a number of naíscoileanna and English-medium nursery units in west Tyrone, and I pay tribute to the staff who are trying to ensure the best possible start for all our children. They show great enthusiasm, dedication and hard work. As a parent, I can testify to that.

Some Members identified issues such as qualifications and training and a curriculum that can foster respect for diversity and other cultures. The unmet need has been quantified at 25% from September. A timetable and targets should be established to ensure universal availability and access for all. That will require more funding, but it would be entirely merited. Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.

Photo of Billy Bell Billy Bell UUP 4:15 pm, 25th January 2000

I am grateful to Mr Poots for the chance to address this issue. I have no educational background, but I am a parent and a grandparent, and in my capacity as a public representative I have served on boards of governors and the like. I want to make some random points on what I have gathered from the debate.

All children should have the chance of pre-school education, and that applies equally to the children of single parents and to those whose parents Mr Benson described as "the backbone of this society". Children are children, and they should all have the same opportunities.

The Government have introduced this scheme, and it has been referred to throughout the debate as "new Labour policy". They seem to have started by targeting areas of social need. I have no objection to this, as long as that is only the start. Like Tom Benson, I believe that the children of the "backbone" people should have the same opportunities as the children of others.

I welcome the announcement of 75% provision. This is something that we should all aim to raise, but I am glad that we have it. The thing that worries me about targeting social need is the criterion by which the Government measure it: the ward system. Mr Poots referred to this, and it is an unsatisfactory system. This Assembly, the Department of Education and the Minister should all look at it very carefully.

Take Seymour Hill. There is a school there which needs 26 places. Under no circumstances, thus far, will the Department look at that. Yet Seymour Hill is in Derriaghy ward, which has pockets of 67% unemployment. Quite clearly this criterion is wrong. Lisburn and Lagan Valley do not have too many wards that could be described as deprived, but within almost all of them there are areas that fall into that category. I would like the Assembly, the Minister and the Education Committee to look at this very closely.

Today we have listened to several Members discussing the policies of the Labour Party. These no longer apply. This is the Northern Ireland Assembly. We should be creating our own policies and doing things our way. Let us make our own policies for 100% provision over the next three or four years.

Photo of Dr Joe Hendron Dr Joe Hendron Social Democratic and Labour Party

I too congratulate Mr Poots for bringing this important subject before the Assembly. I am pleased that the Minister of Education is present.

Most Members will understand and appreciate that when a child starts school at the age of five it may be advantaged, or if it comes from a certain area, or a certain environment, it may be disadvantaged.

A child is born with a certain intelligence quotient. Its intelligence depends mainly on genetic factors, but environment also affects how the child’s intelligence develops. It is therefore very important that, from the moment babies are born, they all have, at the very least, a suitable and positive environment to help their intelligence develop.

It is not just a question of a child being very bright or stupid at birth. Although it is mainly influenced by genetic and environmental factors, other factors come into play. When the Department of Health and Social Services published its document ‘Well into 2000’ in December 1997 it focused on children’s early years. We were told that the Government — I will not say new Labour — were committed to developing a national childcare strategy which would include pre-school nursery provision. They emphasised that Northern Ireland would be fully included in that strategy. The interdepartmental committee on early years was set up to oversee the development and implementation of a strategy for Northern Ireland, and that programme is on course.

In September 1999 the ‘Children First’ document, the Northern Ireland childcare strategy, was printed. Three main problems in relation to childcare, including pre-school nursing, were highlighted. One was that the quality was variable, and the speeches this afternoon have borne that out. The second was cost, which was out of reach for many parents. The third was that there were not enough childcare places, especially in certain areas.

The Executive and the Assembly must ensure that good quality childcare and nursery provision are available in every community to allow parents to choose childcare which meets their needs. Far more places need to be provided.

The sure-start programme was mentioned. I have some experience of that programme on the Shankill Road, and I pay tribute to all who are involved in it. It must be continually adapted, as necessary, to Northern Ireland’s particular priorities and circumstances. The programme aims to work with parents who have children under the age of four in areas of social disadvantage to promote the physical, intellectual and social development of pre-school children. That is relevant to the comments I made earlier about the ongoing development of a child’s personality and intelligence. We need to ensure that children have the best possible start in life.

Family centres, which I think were mentioned earlier, are very important. Children and parents can go to them for advice or to participate in social and recreational activities. I welcome the increase in the number of pre-school nursery places, and I welcome the Minister’s recent statement.

In many areas of Northern Ireland there are massive problems in terms of numeracy and literacy. However, we need to look after young children, particularly those under the age of five. Mr ONeill, the Member for South Down, made the point that a child’s maximum potential for learning — I have forgotten the exact percentage — was achieved by the age of four. That is a very important point in relation to the future of our children.

I would prefer access for all, and I know that Members agree. However, children with learning difficulties, as Mrs Carson said, must be given priority, although I also believe, like Mr ONeill, that children from disadvantaged areas should be given priority as well. I accept the point made by Mr S Wilson, I think, on how disadvantage is defined. That in itself could be a subject for massive debate, and I do not wish to embark upon it now.

I am delighted by the unanimity in the Chamber on this topic. I believe that in the future the Assembly and the Executive will put our children first — especially the younger children.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 4:30 pm, 25th January 2000

Pre-school nursery provision is an issue that affects most of us, and our constituents frequently raise the matter. For the modern family, with both parents working — not by choice, but through necessity — pre-school nursery provision is very important. Parents have their careers, and they are entitled to pursue them. Pre-school nursery provision ensures that, as their lives and careers continue, their children are looked after during working hours.

Nursery-school provision is an important issue in my constituency of Strangford. Many new groups have started in the area, and not always with the necessary financial provision. There is a group in Portavogie, and other groups are starting in other villages in the Ards Peninsula. There is remarkable need for pre-school nursery provision in Newtownards. There is some provision already, but, with the growth of the town, demand is now outstripping supply. This demand must be met.

There are three issues that we must address. Changes to the legislation with regard to full-time nursery-school provision should be made sooner rather than later. It is important for children to have five hours nursery-school provision rather than the two and a half hours that are available now. This is accepted by parents. The teachers’ union would also prefer a five-hour day, as it would benefit both the children and their parents.

Full-time places would fit in well with the Government’s back-to-work policy. They would also enable a better core education, and this is what both teachers and parents want to see. The longer period is more appealing. Indeed, the push for part-time places is open to criticism. The figures used for the various views are a statistician’s dream. The figures can be made to show that the Government have succeeded or that the Department has succeeded. As we all know, we have lies and damned lies, and then we have statistics. We must ensure that the Government’s or the Department’s statistics are appropriate, applicable and not misleading.

The Government should not force — or push — schools to change their emphasis towards part-time places. We need full-time places for all. Full-time places for everyone — that is the thrust of the message that we are being given.. The need is there; and the need has to be met.

It is a fact of life that most parents work because they need the money. For that reason pre-school nursery provision is important to the parents, but it is also essential for the children. My two smallest boys went to a pre-school nursery. Wee boys can be shy, but it certainly helped mine to develop. They have no difficulty communicating, and their personalities have also developed. The youngest boy went from being a wee fellow who said nothing to a boy who now never keeps quiet — my wife would say that it is hard on her eardrums. This is proof that pre-school nursery provision can help the wee children develop. It improves their communication skills and develops their personalities.

We do not know how the seeds sown by nursery-school provision will benefit our children in later years.

There are also children with special needs who need particular help. The experts say that those who look after pre-school nursery children can take at least two special-needs children in a group of 26 children. That is something that should be looked into. We want to see opportunities for all children, including those with special needs. Undoubtedly, such opportunities will help them develop, and society as a whole will benefit.

The enrolment procedure needs to be better advertised. It has been advertised in the past through newspapers and advertisements, but that method was not really satisfactory. We have asked for consideration to be given to a television or media blitz. Every home has a television, and it is a focal point in the everyday life of the family. So let us have the enrolment better advertised through television, and in a sensible and positive way. The advertisement should highlight the admissions criteria so that people will understand them, and it should be simple, acceptable and easily understood.

There are three aspects in the criteria that perhaps we could look at again. First, it should be open to all in their final pre-school year. Secondly, the available vacant places should be re-advertised. And, thirdly, any remaining places should be filled by two-year-olds. By so doing, the three-year-olds would be considered before the two-year-olds.

It is important that the Department should also implement an annual review to iron out any problems that may arise in the process. It could address the problems and, thereby, make the system more effective as the years go on.

I congratulate the Member who brought this matter forward. It may be the first time in this Chamber that we have had unanimous agreement. On this issue we are all together.

Photo of Gerry McHugh Gerry McHugh Sinn Féin

A Chathaoirligh. I would also like to commend the Member who raised this matter and gave everyone the opportunity to speak in this debate. The education of very young children is a most important matter.

I refer to Mr Wilson’s comments about experience. Experience is not everything in education. Every person has his own experience of education, and one does not necessarily have to be a teacher to be able to teach children, to have a good grasp of what is needed in the learning industry and to know what is best for young children. In fact, if some people were to look in on some of the debates in this House, they would wonder what sort of learning experience some of the DUP Members had in the past and what they would offer our children by way of education.

I welcome the fact that this has been a cross-party debate with most people in agreement about what is needed for the young. We hope that the £38 million given to pre-school education, some of which is not new, will be directed to where it is needed most. However, there are gaps, and parents are not happy about where moneys have been directed.

An important matter is equality. I agree with the points made by Mr ONeill about social disadvantage and the importance of allowing the children in deprived families early access to education without having to pay, which is often a great deterrent to those on very low incomes. There are areas of deprivation where people have been stigmatised, and stigmatisation carries through for a very long time. There are many other areas concerning money, which have had to be put right — that is a different argument — but children from those areas need to understand that they are just as important as any other children in the country. Therefore the stigmatisation of areas should not be allowed to continue.

The issue of starting age has been raised, and I was intrigued by the debate about whether children should start education at four or six years of age. Some research is required, and this is a debate which will continue, but it is something we must get right. There has to be a correct age, and statistics must be able to prove what that age is. Members have mentioned that 80% of a child’s learning is achieved by the age of four, so there is much to be considered.

Access to education is very important. When the thrust of Pre-school Education Advisory Group plans for pre-school places was known, there was much soul-searching and many arguments. Many felt disgruntled. They were being forced to accept facilities they did not want and which were outside their area. People felt an attachment to their local area because the facilities in those areas were provided by local community effort. They felt that their feelings were being disregarded, that they were being forced to use a school in another area where 52 places existed and that they had no choice in the matter. There was insufficient consultation on this issue, and it is one which continues to influence people’s level of satisfaction.

In relation to the issue of dividing communities, access is a very important matter. Some local communities could have been pulled together better if a more neutral area had been chosen.

The location of facilities is more important in rural areas than in city or urban areas because of the cost of travel. Some mothers might have to use taxis to pick up children at different times of the day, at great expense. The need to travel five miles to the nearest town where a facility is located is a great deterrent for people, especially those with children between two years of age and school-starting age. We do not want a situation whereby some children are losing out because of the placing of these facilities.

Care also needs to be taken by all of those involved to ensure that they do not make people who receive benefits feel that they are of lesser consequence than others who are paying or who are less deprived. This has not always been the case, and perhaps this is an area which Departments could examine.

There is the possibility that we will create further division between communities which have been trying to pull together unless we look carefully at the placing of facilities in local areas. Pre-school education is an area where parents of all shades find common ground in working together for the benefit of local children and the local community.

The provision of childcare through crèche facilities at work is an equality issue concerning women’s access to work. This is another facility which promotes early learning in children, whether it be located at work or at training centres. It is a great learning experience for children — especially those from small families —to interact with other children of the same age.

This argument has a long way to go. I welcome most of the comments made by Members, even if I could not agree with everything they said.

Photo of Ken Robinson Ken Robinson UUP 4:45 pm, 25th January 2000

The House considered this issue last March, and although it was an extremely interesting debate, it was very poorly attended, as Members may remember. I am glad Mr Poots has given us a second opportunity to bring the subject before the House. As several Members have mentioned, this is a core subject.

In March I said that I fully endorsed the Government’s long-stated aim of providing high-quality educational places for all children in their pre-school year. Several Members made that point over and over again today. The Government set out with an extremely laudable aim but were blown slightly off course. Perhaps their social conscience got in the way of educational sense. As Mr ONeill pointed out, the amount of learning a child can acquire by the age of four is stupendous.

If children could get into pre-school provision for that fourth year the benefits would be enormous. However, I am not totally convinced that sending a two-year-old — probably still not properly potty-trained — would be of advantage either to the child or to the person struggling to educate him or her in the ways of the world when there are other children at a more advanced stage to be looked after.

I should like to return to the Minister. On a recent visit to his native Londonderry he said that, owing to a major £38 million programme, there would be free pre-school places for 75% of pre-primary children this year — the largest investment ever made in pre-school provision here. He made the announcement in a local nursery school, where he said that he could see the delivery of high-quality pre-school education at first hand.

I do not agree with him on the first part of his statement, but I certainly agree with him on the second. Is he perhaps referring to the £38 million mentioned in the press release recently issued by his Department? I have here a letter dated 23 March 1999 from his predecessor, in which he refers to £35 million. A figure of £24 million has also been bandied about. Whether this is the result of spin, faulty arithmetic or a deficiency in numeracy I am not entirely sure, but perhaps the Minister will tell us which is the correct figure. However, I am sure we all welcome the fact that money is being spent in this area.

Pushing the number of places is one thing. We all welcome that, but can the Minister and his Department be absolutely sure that these are quality places? It is quality which counts here. We need places which will give children, especially those from a disadvantaged background, the firm educational foundation they will require if they are to engage in lifelong learning. This is necessary if that lifelong learning is to become a reality rather than a mere cliché, regardless of which party it emerged from. What steps will the Minister’s Department be taking to ensure that these additional places are quality places? Quality must be delivered by properly trained staff, and this has been mentioned time and time again.

My Colleague Joan Carson referred to the difference between pre-school provision and nursery education. I know that the nursery sector feels extremely sore about this, but we must have quality education. Every Member wishes to ensure that there is as much quality provision as possible for children, especially those in disadvantaged areas. Will we maximise the potential of training places in colleges such as Stranmillis? That college has a course leading to an early-years qualification. Will the Minister enhance the number of places available on such courses? If he were to we could begin to pour an increased number of children into pre-school education, not to mention properly trained staff. This should also happen in the case of NVQ assistants. We have to ensure that that provision exists, since, to some degree, it is supplementing a deficit in certain areas.

Can we also be assured that, these extra pre-school places having been provided, the standard of provision will be carefully monitored to ensure that there is a high degree of comparability across the Province? The standards that exist in West Tyrone — we hear the words "west of the Bann" bandied around in the House every other day — must equate with the standards east of the Bann, north or south of Lough Neagh or in whichever other geographical area you care to mention. There should be some measure of uniformity so that all children can gain access to high-quality provision headed up by well-qualified staff.

Can we be sure that the locations in which our children are introduced to life are of good quality? Mr ONeill mentioned the size of classrooms and the need to ensure that that delivery is in the best possible location.

At the end of the process, can this community be assured that we have provided much more than a childminding service? That is a problem I have. I understand the economic need to get more women out into the workforce, and if ladies want to go out to work, they should be encouraged to do so. However, we have a duty — particularly the Minister and those involved in education — to ensure that it is the educational provision that comes first. If good quality provision helps the childcare facilities on the way, so be it. Let us not get our priorities the wrong way round.

Can we be absolutely sure that if we bring all these bits and pieces together we will put as many of these tiny feet as possible on a secure path for lifelong learning that will serve them well in the future? Someone claimed in the debate that the fact that one did not go to nursery school increased one’s chances of going to other more interesting places. Whether that is true, I am not sure. I did not go to nursery school, and I do not know whether I lost something in that process or not. It is a necessity that a caring parent who feels secure in parenting skills should be available to a child, as Dr Hendron said, from a very early age.

Anything we are attempting to do in the pre-school sector should not be a substitute for good parenting skills in a caring home. If that means putting in the kind of early-years support that we have heard about in the Shankill Road and other areas, so be it. I hope the Minister will take all those aspects into account.

I commend Mr Poots for bringing this forward and giving us the opportunity to have a wide-ranging debate on the subject.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I will call two more Members to speak, and then I will ask the Minister to respond.

Photo of Mr Danny O'Connor Mr Danny O'Connor Social Democratic and Labour Party

I would like to thank Mr Ken Robinson, who generously allocated me some of his time when this subject was debated last March.

This is an extremely important issue. It has been said that the most formative years of a child’s life are those up to the age of five when he learns approximately three quarters of what he will learn throughout his life. He learns how to speak, how to walk, how to eat and how to go to the toilet. That is very interesting. The current pre-school selection criteria for children of two years of age in their penultimate pre-school year are laid down in Regulation 2:4 of the Pre-school Education in Schools (Admissions Criteria) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1998.

What happens when two-year-olds in their penultimate pre-school year go to nursery school? There is no stipulation that these children should have any social training whatsoever. It is important that teachers are there to teach and educate, not to act as nannies. I do not take anything away from those who do act as nannies, but professional teachers need to teach. It is ironic that when these statutory rules were introduced they contravened article 32 of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, which says

"the Board of Governors of each school shall draw up, and may from time to time amend, the criteria to be applied in selecting children for admission to the school."

In my constituency there are two schools. One school is 25% undersubscribed; the other is heavily oversubscribed.

It used to be the case that the Catholic Maintained School was undersubscribed and it took the overflow from the school that was oversubscribed.

According to these criteria, two-year-olds could end up receiving two years of nursery education while certain three-year-olds may get none. That cannot be right. The applications must be received by the end of April. There is no longer any flexibility which will allow schools to work with each other so as to ensure that there is nursery provision for all children.

Mr Benson and Mr Bell touched on the issue of "provision by ward" as a way of determining social disadvantage. Mr Bell noted that in some areas the rate of unemployment is running at two-thirds. There are some areas within my constituency which have been designated, using the Robson indicators, I believe, as socially disadvantaged areas. There are certain pockets of real social disadvantage in those areas. However, there are also quite affluent areas within those wards. The system needs to be reviewed and refined street by street in order to ensure that the need is properly targeted.

Mr Sammy Wilson raised the issue of integrated education. Two integrated schools in urban areas were given the go-ahead to provide nursery units for 26 pupils, and one in Mr Wilson’s constituency was not because of the insistence that the names of 52 pupils be provided. This is something which should be investigated. I feel that this is not in keeping with remit of the Good Friday Agreement. There are double standards and a lack of equality. We cannot talk about equality and only pay lip-service to it whenever it suits us. This is a very real issue for all parents in Northern Ireland and not just those who decide that they will send their children to integrated schools because they will have a better chance of getting them in. That would be fundamentally wrong.

As well as increasing the number of free pre-school places to 75% of primary school children, the Minister’s statement said that there was going to be an extra £38 million. Mr Wilson said that about £24 million of that was allocated last year. Mr Robinson mentioned that £35 million is to be allocated in March of this year. We need to find out the true figure and what additional money has been allocated.

Unfortunately there are still a lot of mobile classrooms in our schools. There are schools with spare classrooms, and it may be that, as Mr Benson has suggested, instead of building new schools we could use these classrooms. That may allow more money to be spent on widening the provision further.

I thank Mr Poots for bringing this matter back to the Assembly. We should have as many children as possible in nursery education — as close to 100% as we can possibly get. I urge the Minister to reflect that this idea of social disadvantage — of having parents turn up at a school with a benefit book to show that they are either on income-based jobseeker’s allowance or income support — is totally wrong. It creates a stigma and harks back to the days when some people got yellow dinner tickets and some got red dinner tickets, when people thought they were less well off because they got free dinners, and when certain children were stigmatised for being poor. Teachers should not have to make those decisions. The selection process should be suspended, if possible, so that new thought can be given as to how it should be carried out once all these extra free pre-school places are available.

Is this 75% of three-year-olds, 75% of four-year-olds or, bearing in mind the criteria, 75% of two-year-olds? Because two-year-olds have access to nursery education we do not know what the 75% represents, and we need to know that.

I said earlier that teachers are not nannies. If you bring two-year-old children into a classroom, it is likely that some of them will have accidents. If there is an accident, either the teacher or the classroom assistant will have to tend to that child, leaving only one person to look after 25 or 26 other children.

Most of the equipment in nursery schools is not suitable for children under 36 months. I urge the Minister to look at this aspect of the matter. He needs to concentrate on a better delivery for the three-and four-year-olds rather than on the two-year-olds.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 5:00 pm, 25th January 2000

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I also welcome the additional funding which has been announced. The Assembly deserves honesty both from the Minister and from the Department. There is a lot of confusion over the Minister’s announcement. It appears that the £38 million may comprise £12 million that has already been spent and £25·6 million which has been allocated to the next two financial years.

I support the concept of learning through play. It is very important for young children to develop basic social skills in a friendly, learning environment, and by playing they start to learn much more easily. I would like to concentrate on voluntary playgroups. My children have attended such groups over the past four years, and my wife was involved in the running of one.

Voluntary groups operated on a shoestring for many years before they received any funding. They continue to run car boot sales and hold other fund-raising events that the community participates in. There are financial pressures on a number of groups because of cash-flow problems. They have to pay staff weekly, while funding from the Department does not come until six or eight weeks later. This problem needs to be addressed.

We all agree with, and support, a raising of standards. However, we are under pressure to introduce new educational toys, and space has to be found for them to be stored. Many playgroups are in multi-use halls, and this creates the problem of storing toys safely and conveniently so that people do not spend valuable time carrying toys from A to B.

There is also a continuing need for the training and assessment of those who are running the playgroups, and this is very costly. The Department of Education pays for the training of nursery-school teachers, so it should be paying for the training of staff in pre-school playgroups. It is very expensive for a small group to finance this. Therefore it is important that there be continuing funding here. The mushrooming of playgroups has created a demand for those who have the necessary qualifications, and this can put smaller groups at risk.

If there are not enough trained staff in this area, qualified staff will be attracted to another group. If the smaller group is left without staff with recognised qualifications, its funding can be put at risk. The opening of new nursery schools has to be looked at very carefully.

During the past year media reports in England show that new state-funded nursery school places have resulted in the loss of pre-school education places. A nursery unit being opened beside a school resulted in the closure of two voluntary groups nearby which became unviable. Additional state money has resulted in fewer children being educated. The education and library boards, NIPPA and voluntary groups should all be carefully co-ordinated so that such costly loss of skills and educational places does not occur in Northern Ireland.

There have been comments from all sides on the need to change the existing criteria because of inequality. I am sure that all Members will support the preference given to children from disadvantaged backgrounds in their final pre-school year. But surely it is not right for children as young as two to be placed in a nursery unit with four-year-olds. Such inequality is very divisive in local communities. It is essential that inequality is quickly addressed so that in the final pre-school year every child is offered a position. Any additional places should be offered to younger children from a disadvantaged group. Few would disagree with such criteria, and I urge Members to work to achieve them through new regulations. I hope that the Minister and the Department of Education will take that on board.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Before calling the Minister I should like to make a few comments. The Minister, as a Minister should, has sat patiently through the debate. The Member who initiated the debate has also waited patiently. In a sense I am preaching to the converted. Most Members who are in the Chamber have asked questions and await the Minister’s response. However, some of those who asked questions have not returned to the Chamber to hear the Minister. That is not the proper way to treat the House. I ask Members to convey my remarks to absent Colleagues, particularly to those who asked questions but have not returned to hear the Minister’s response. I announced that there would be two more contributions and that the Minister would then respond. The purpose was to enable Members to be present.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank Edwin Poots for initiating this debate. It comes at a fortuitous time for us in the Department because of my trip to Derry last week and because of my attempt to publicise the fact that time was running out for parents to fill in their applications before the closing date of 2 February. I also thank every Member who contributed to such an important debate.

I welcome the opportunity to hear Members’ views on pre-school education. The pre-school education expansion programme, which commenced in 1998-99, is the largest ever investment in pre-school education here, with expenditure totalling £38 million and 9,000 new pre-school education places being secure. This is one of the most significant education developments in this area in recent years.

In 1999-00 almost 70% of all eligible children in their immediate pre-school years are in funded pre-school education. In September there will be free pre-school places for 75% of children in the year before they enter P1. This figure has increased from 45% just three years ago — a dramatic increase.

The essential message is, therefore, that the number of free pre-school places available is increasing each year. There are enough places to go around, and parents should be encouraged to apply for a place for their child. The aim of the expansion programme is to achieve at least 85% provision by the year 2001-02. In the context of seeking additional resources, we will want to consider how best to build on that achievement.

The development of pre-school education provision is being taken forward through partnership between the statutory, voluntary and private sectors. Of the 9,000 new places available, approximately 4,200 will be in the statutory nursery sector, and 5,000 will be in the voluntary and private sectors.

I pay tribute to the hard work of all those involved, particularly the members of the pre-school education advisory groups in each education and library board. Their expertise and extensive local knowledge will ensure that the development of pre-school provision is effectively planned. The pre-school education expansion programme is an integral part of the overall drive to raise educational standards and levels of achievement in the long term, bearing in mind that those centres which receive funded places must fulfil certain important quality requirements. I know that this has been a recurring feature of the debate, and it is a very important one.

With regard to raising education standards, places are initially targeted at children from socially disadvantaged circumstances. Research has repeatedly shown that these children fare less well at school and benefit most from pre-school education. They are given first priority under the admissions criteria in cases where a school or other pre-school centre is oversubscribed.

The enrolment criteria do not exclude the children of working parents. Next September, even if all children from socially disadvantaged circumstances apply for and receive a place, there will still be places available for the majority of other children — around 70%. I believe that this position will improve further next year.

There was criticism of the admissions arrangements for nursery schools last year, and the related publicity may have had the unfortunate effect of deterring some parents from applying for places on the programme. This year the admissions arrangements have been revised to reflect the recommendations of a focus group on the open enrolment arrangements in the nursery sector. This group reported to my predecessor, John McFall. It comprised representatives of the nursery-school sector and other key education interests, and its remit was to review the operation of the open enrolment procedures for 1999. It also advised on the need and scope for improvements to the arrangements for 2000-01.

The key areas examined by the focus group included the definition of "socially disadvantaged"; criteria for priority admission; the admission of two-year-olds to nursery schools; multiple application procedures; children with special needs; and the timetable and publicity for admissions.

I am also grateful to those involved in the work of the focus group and for their recommendations. New legislation will be required to implement some of these recommendations, and I intend to take the first available opportunity to move this forward.

The timetable for applying for nursery places has been brought forward considerably this year in order to streamline the process and is now in line with the primary school admissions process. It has been designed to enable parents to have complete information about the range of pre-school education provision available when making applications, whilst allowing schools more time to process applications and prepare for next year.

In a wider context, the expansion programme is an important element of the Department of Education’s strategy for tackling low achievement and underachievement and of the childcare strategy, ‘Children First’, which aims to secure high-quality, affordable childcare for children up to 14 years of age in every community.

Arrangements are in place to ensure co-operation between all Departments involved in the development of early years policy, particularly through the inter- departmental group on early years. These important structures enable Departments to work together to promote and develop childcare and pre-school education in accordance with international standards of good practice.

I also want to acknowledge the important contribution made by the European Union special support programme for peace and reconciliation and the MBW and LRI initiatives, through which the further development of pre-school education has been facilitated in recent years.

I will turn now to some of the particular issues raised by Members. Some Members referred to last week’s announcement. I would like to make it clear from the outset that the purpose of my statement was to ensure that parents were made aware of the opportunities being made available under the ongoing expansion scheme and the need to apply by 2 February 2000. It was made very clear that this was a re-announcement of a previous statement by John McFall.

Ms Ramsey asked whether there were plans to expand the pre-school education scheme. The available resources — £38 million — will provide for places for at least 85% of all children whose parents wish to secure a free place. Further expansion, to provide universal provision, will be dependent on additional resources. Of course, I will be pressing for extra resources. It is also important to point out that not all parents take up the offer of free school education for their children. It is an achievable objective that in the future we will be in a position to offer free school places to the parents of all children. I know that that was a recurring theme of the debate today.

Mr Roche mentioned Lord Melchett’s commitment to providing a place for every child. I remain committed to the long-term objective of ensuring a year of pre-school education for every child.

With regard to the role of the pre-school education advisory groups, (PEAGs), a policy guidance document entitled ‘Investing in Early Learning’, which was issued to all partners in April 1998, made it clear that PEAGs would be established and that the annual pre-school education development plans were subject to local planning and submission to the Department by the education and library boards

Another Member raised the issue of school age and the curriculum. A research project is under way which is looking at the benefits of the provision, standards and curriculum available to children in all types of pre-school provision — nursery, reception, playgroups and private day nurseries — and in the home.

Mr Roche and Mr ONeill, among others, raised the issue of qualifications. The Department of Education, together with the Department of Health and Social Services and the Training and Employment Agency, arranged a bursary scheme under the EU peace package to assist all funded providers to meet the staff qualification requirements of the expansion programme.

Ms Lewsley mentioned the matter of pre-school playgroups and their difficulties. Several points were raised in the debate on behalf of pre-school providers and of NIPPA, which is an umbrella organisation representing and providing valuable and committed support to many of them. The expansion programme is being taken forward through a partnership approach, with the participation of the statutory, voluntary and private sectors. I pay tribute again to all participants in these very productive arrangements.

It has been suggested that some playgroups are facing closure at a time of expansion. I do not expect this to be widespread. All decisions on the location of new provision are taken through agreement at local level and the voluntary sector is involved in this process. With quality as the key consideration, all PEAGs have agreed to follow a set of principles that aim to keep displacements of existing pre-school provision to a minimum. My Department is taking these principles into account in responding to the draft plans.

There have been calls for capital funding for the voluntary sector. The capital funding secured for the expansion programme is to allow the statutory education sector to expand and participate in the programme. Without it, all expansion would have to be done through recurrent funding of the voluntary and private sectors. These sectors, on the other hand, have existing premises and equipment, as well as access to a wider range of funding sources than the statutory sector. I am sure that they will actively seek to access funds from other sources. We must give priority, within the resources available, to providing as many children as possible with access to pre-school education.

NIPPA has called for funding for its early-years advisers. I must say that funding is indeed provided for the support which pre-school centres require, as part of the recurrent funding that they receive for each place. In the statutory education sector an element of this is held back by the boards for their own support services. In the voluntary and private sectors it is up to each centre to decide how to secure the support it requires. NIPPA is only one potential source of such support, and to provide it with central funding for this purpose would be unfair to other potential providers of support, such as individual teachers.

The issue of social disadvantage also came up. In 1999-2000, 9,700 children were admitted to nursery schools and classes. Of this number, 3,000 qualified under the social disadvantage admissions criteria. Some 6,300 children were admitted without reference to social disadvantage.

On the subject of two-year-olds, one of the issues examined by the focus group was the admission of two-year-olds to nursery schools. I must stress that children in their final pre-school year — three- and four-year-olds — are always given priority over all other children in admissions to pre-school education. The pre-school curriculum is specifically designed for children of this age group. Children in their penultimate pre-school year can be admitted to nursery schools and classes if there are places remaining after the admission of all children in the final pre-school year whose parents have applied. It is expected that relatively few two-year-olds will be admitted, and that these will be mainly in areas where the population has declined, as new places are being targeted so as to match extra pre-school provision with need.

I recognise that in the few cases where this does occur, the admission of large numbers of two-year-olds could pose practical difficulties for schools. My Department has made resources available to assist the very few schools that are in this position. I will look carefully at the possibility of bringing forward legislation which would be necessary to restrict the admission of very young children.

Edwin Poots and Billy Bell raised the issue of pre-school provision in Seymour Hill. The development proposal for the establishment of a new nursery unit at Dunmurry Primary School is currently being considered, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment. There is currently no formal proposal in relation to Seymour Hill Primary School. Any such proposal would have to be put forward by the South Eastern Education and Library Board and the pre-school education advisory group.

With regard to the pre-school expansion programme and the phasing out of reception provision, as part of the drive to maintain and develop high-quality pre-school education the Department’s policy is to replace reception provision, over time, with alternative nursery or playgroup provision which meets the standards of the expansion programme. The PEAGs have been asked to take this into account in drawing up their plans.

Patricia Lewsley raised the issue of rural areas. Currently we are seeing through the plans drawn up by the PEAGs, which include innovative approaches to meeting the needs of rural areas for example, they propose community nursery units, from which children would transfer to several primary schools. The voluntary and private sectors will clearly continue to play a key role in rural areas. Reception provision will continue to be funded until it can be replaced with alternative, quality provision.

The issue of children with July and August birthdays was also raised. Children with birthdays in those months are four by the beginning of the school year. If they were not part of the initial target group for pre-school education expansion, those who failed to gain a pre-school place would not have any educational experience until after their fifth birthday.

The issue of special educational needs also came up frequently. It is a hugely important educational issue. Statistics in the Department clearly show that some 20% of pupils require different levels of special education. On my recent visit to the United States I asked officials in the Department of Education in Washington about the corresponding figure for the United States of America. They are working to a figure of approximately 11%. That highlights the seriousness of our problem. It also shows the importance of the concept of teaching children from the earliest possible age. It is a huge debate, and I am keenly interested in it.

The responsibility of the Department of Education begins when children are three. Prior to that, children are the responsibility of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. However, much work can be done. There is also an onus on parents to spot any difficulties that their children are experiencing at an early age.

The enrolment of some children with special educational needs in nursery schools is an issue that all parties and the Department of Education wish to see continuing. Under current legislation it is not possible to limit the numbers of such pupils who are admitted. My Department has encouraged nursery schools to give priority to children with special needs in the admissions arrangements — after socially disadvantaged children and those with July/August birthdays, and before other children. If a child has a statement of special educational needs which specifies a nursery placement, he or she can be admitted over and above a school’s pre-school enrolment figure. In any event, many children with special needs will be admitted into nursery education under the general criteria. The Department is monitoring this position to determine how it operates in practice. Some 270 pupils with special educational needs have been admitted in the current school year.

The matter of cross-community provision was raised. I know that the PEAGs’ plans have taken seriously the need to examine the scope for developing provision on neutral sites, and through partnerships, to secure places which can be attended by children from all religious backgrounds. I pay tribute to those who have worked hard to achieve this wherever possible.

With regard to the effect of the pre-school education expansion programme on existing provision, the programme’s primary aim is to ensure that as many children as possible receive high-quality educational opportunities before they begin their compulsory school career, in whatever setting. I know that in drawing up their plans the PEAGs have been assiduous in taking into account, where possible, the need to encourage and maintain facilities which attract children from all religious backgrounds.

Mrs Bell raised the issue of the relationship with the childcare strategy. The pre-school education expansion programme is designed specifically for children in their immediate pre-school year. Alongside this programme there will be an increase in childcare provision for children in the 0-14 category. These programmes are complementary. The childcare strategy is being led by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Ms Morrice said that parents need a better understanding of how the system works. I agree that parents should have better information on what services are available and how they relate to each other. My Department, through the interdepartmental group on early years, is working closely with the other Departments and agencies involved.

I think it was Mrs Carson who raised the matter of using vacant accommodation in schools for nursery provision. My Department and the relevant school authorities are seeking, where appropriate, to provide accommodation for nursery units in surplus classrooms in existing schools in areas where there is a shortfall in pre-school provision.

Sammy Wilson and some other Members referred to the £38 million for the pre-school programme. Last week’s announcement was not a spin, nor was it intended to announce new money. The pre-school programme has been running since 1998-99, and the £38 million covers the four years from 1998-99 to 2001-02. The announcement, which I thought was clear, was intended solely to alert parents to the need to apply for places before 2 February.

Sammy Wilson also raised the issue of there being no places for children from working families. In his constituency of East Belfast there are already places for over 90% of children in their pre-school year, so his area is much better off than some others.

It is important to mention, on the subject of queues, that up until last year the criteria for admission to nursery schools were non-statutory. In some instances, places were allocated on a first-come-first-served basis and involved parents queuing for long periods, sometimes at night. This was not an effective or desirable way to allocate places.

Sammy Wilson also raised the issue of working parents. Assistance is given to working parents who do not receive a free place, through the working families tax-credit scheme. This is designed specifically to assist low-income families, and it provides a childcare tax credit worth 70% of all eligible childcare costs.

Barry McElduff brought up the matter of Irish-medium education. It can receive funding under the expansion programme. Irish-medium interests are also represented on each of the pre-school education advisory groups. In the current school year about 300 Irish-medium pre-school places have been funded in 17 centres.

Sammy Wilson raised the issue of pre-school provision at Cregagh Primary School in Belfast. This school could not demonstrate that it could attract sufficient pre-school children to make a statutory nursery unit viable. Therefore my Department could not provide new-build accommodation for the voluntary playgroup that uses part of the school building. However, the Department has invited alternative proposals for providing accommodation. Another key factor is that there is undersubscribed nursery provision within walking distance of the school.

Billy Bell referred to the viability criteria for new nursery units. The minimum number of pupils for whom my Department can approve a nursery unit is 26. However, a unit that could attract 52 children would receive the maximum benefit from the capital investment. Pre-school education advisory groups have been encouraged to consider the needs of all sectors when drawing up plans. There is no question of different treatment for the integrated sector — or for any sector, for that matter.

Jim Shannon raised the issue of full-time versus part-time nursery-school provision. In the 1999-2000 school year 8,300 full-time places and 7,400 part-time places are available over all the pre-school centres. With regard to part-time enrolment the pre-school expansion programme is being taken forward on the basis of the creation of part-time places — two and a half hours, as opposed to four hours for full-time places. This means that provision can be made for the maximum number of children within the available resources. Whether or not the pre-school provision should be increased in duration, or extended, is a matter that could be considered in the context of the 2000 spending review.

Ken Robinson mentioned the pre-school programme funding and whether it amounts to £38 million or to £35 million. The £38 million relates to a four-year period, as I said earlier. The £35 million is the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, which covers three years. I hope that is clear.

All of the pre-school education expansion places are carefully monitored from the point of view of quality. We ensure that the common curriculum drawn up by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment is followed. We also ensure that there is at least the minimum staff-to-child ratio. There must also be at least the minimum accommodation requirements, and the Education and Training Inspectorate inspects all funded centres.

There are consistent staff qualification requirements, and an early-years specialist is involved in every centre to provide support in the planning and the assessment of children. Mr Ken Robinson raised the issue of the number of places being allocated to two-year-olds. In the 1998-99 school year the total number of nursery school places was 13,300. Of these, 330, or 2·5%, were allocated to two-year-olds. In the 1999-2000 school year there were 15,500, of which 550, or 3·5%, were allocated to two-year-olds. Their places are funded in all pre-school settings.

Mr O’Connor raised the matter of open enrolment and of multiple application forms. The use of a multiple application form would be desirable for nursery education, but it is not possible under existing primary legislation. In respect of this, as with other focus group recommendations, the first opportunity will be taken to amend the law. In the meantime, a phased application process with clear stages will apply for the year 2000-01. This should lead to a smoother operation of the admissions processes. In circumstances such as those described by Mr O’Connor it will be open to parents to apply to both schools. That would apply in the cases that he mentioned.

Mr O’Connor also raised the issue of teachers having to spend time checking parents’ eligibility under social disadvantage criteria. From the year 2000-01 arrangements have been made for social security offices to certify eligibility under the social disadvantage criteria. This will avoid the need for teachers to make checks. That is a very important point.

With regard to funding for training, it is intended that this should be covered from their £1,130 grant per place.

I intend to write to Members about specific pre-school projects and playgroups which have not been covered in my response today. If I have overlooked any other issues or points raised please contact me or my Department, and we will gladly reply.

Photo of Ken Robinson Ken Robinson UUP 5:30 pm, 25th January 2000

The Minister did not address a particular question. I am sure his civil servants have been working furiously in the background, but —

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. It is not allowable to put questions after the Minister has spoken.

Photo of Ken Robinson Ken Robinson UUP

This is grossly unfair, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. It is not allowable to raise another question. If the Member wishes to take the matter up with the Minister he may do so, either at another time in the Chamber or in writing, but it is not in order to do so after the Minister has started to speak.

Adjourned at 5.39 pm.