Legislation requires that all preschool settings give priority to children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Preschool settings are responsible for setting any subsequent criteria. Priority is given to children from socially disadvantaged circumstances in the preschool admissions process because research has shown that they experience more difficulty at school than any other children. This is part of our wider efforts to tackle educational underachievement. 'Learning to Learn: a Framework for Early Years Education and Learning' includes an action to implement remaining actions from the review of preschool admissions, including one to examine the definition of socially disadvantaged circumstances with a view to ensuring that the relevant criteria are up to date and, if need be, expanded. I also want to examine the criteria to ensure that they do not disadvantage low-paid working parents. I have asked my officials to consider the issues associated with extending the priority criterion.
I thank the Minister for at least part of his response, but I remain unconvinced that he realises the depth of feeling on the ground about the criteria that are enforced on schools, leaving working families disadvantaged compared with those on benefits. Will he confirm that, given the increase in the birth rate and its impact on already overstretched provision, he will consider extending the provision that currently operates on a part-time basis, especially in places such as Waringstown, where there is considerable oversubscription?
The Member has raised a number of points. Regardless of parents being on benefits for whatever reason, my job is to look after the children in these matters. Children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are at a greater disadvantage when starting school than those who are not. That is an evidence-based statement. There was a debate earlier around early interventions, early years etc. If we make an early intervention, we ensure that the child has a greater opportunity to succeed in education, and we save money further down the line. I accept that there is an argument from low-paid families who face financial challenges and are out working and trying to make ends meet. I accept that there is a further responsibility on my Department to assist those families. As I said, I am asking my officials to look at how we broaden the social disadvantage criterion. It was caught up in the welfare debate, but I think that we can move it on in conjunction with the welfare debate or separate from it. It is now time to move that on.
In relation to part-time and full-time provision, evidence-based research shows us that there is no significant difference between part-time and full-time provision for a child. Ideally, I would like to provide up to four hours for all children. The finances are not there to do it, but I am satisfied that the provision that we make in part-time is good for the child's development.
As I outlined to Mr Moutray, I intend to try to move this forward. As I said, it is tied up in the welfare debate. It may be tied up in that further because, as I speak, I am thinking that the Conservative Government may well do away with a number of benefit entitlements. We are concerned about the future of family tax credits and what bandwidth those will be in. The goalposts may continually change on us, but I want to assist low-income families who are out working and who, quite rightly, recognise that there is a disadvantage to their children as well.
It is also worth noting that the social criterion operates only for 25% of children who apply for preschool places, and I am in a position to say that over 99% of children who applied for preschool provision this year have been provided with that. No one, at the end of the day, is being left out because of the social disadvantage clause. I am an elected representative; I know about the heat that it can cause around some of these issues, but I believe that the principles of the policy are right. They are making a difference to our educational achievement, but I recognise that there is an argument to widen the criterion.
Thanks, Minister, for your answers thus far. The sustainable schools policy guidelines for travel time to school state that primary-school children should not travel for more than 30 minutes and post-primary-school children should not travel for more than 45 minutes. Will the Minister provide some guidance on travel time for preschool children?
As the Member is aware, there are no set criteria for travel time for preschool children, but we certainly would not want them to travel for longer than that set out for primary-school children. We try to provide services as close to the family home as possible, although that is not always possible. I suspect that the Member's question has been triggered by the letter that parents receive if they are not successful in getting a place. That gives the entire list of preschool providers in an area, some of which may be 30, 40 or 50 miles away. There is no suggestion in the distribution of that letter that parents should consider sending their children that far. It is a generic letter sent from the regional offices of the Education Authority to parents. Every parent will receive the same. I understand why it causes some concern and, at times, anger among parents when they receive it, but it would be more expensive and a logistical nightmare to break it down into even smaller areas. We have to think about those matters as well.
The Minister has, rightly, highlighted twice that over 99% of applications for preschool places this year have been satisfied. Does he have any concerns about the balance between the statutory and non-statutory sectors and in the long term, perhaps, the need, as funds allow, to redress that balance in favour of the statutory sector?
There has been an ongoing debate in education for many years about the value of each of the sectors that provides preschool education. I would just caution the Member on some of these matters. The second question that I was asked today was about the early years fund. That fund goes into the community and voluntary sector and it allows that sector to provide preschool places and early years intervention. It also allows it to be sustainable and provide very many other services in the community. I would caution against removing preschool places in the community and voluntary sector in favour of the statutory sector for a variety of reasons, including that we would decimate the community and voluntary sector's funding.
Education and Training Inspectorate reports show that there has been a constant improvement in the delivery of preschool education in the community and voluntary sector. We will ensure that that continues. I have invested more and more money. I cannot remember the exact percentage but, over the last number of years, the amount of money that I have invested in preschool settings in the community and voluntary sector has risen quite considerably. That allows the sector to invest and provide more and more curricular activity for the children involved. It also allows the sector to provide training and decent wages so that it attracts the right staff. All those things are at play, so it is not simple. Even during my time on the Education Committee, there were some quite lively debates on this matter between the various sectors. I have no doubt that those debates will continue.
Going back to Mr Rogers's question, the Minister's answer and the idea of the generic letter, the Minister quite rightly identified parental anger when that generic letter is received. There is a geographic list of where they can go. On the basis that that can be misinterpreted and provoke anger — it certainly has among my constituents — will the Minister be in a position in future to ensure that such a letter is worded more carefully and more appropriately so as not to cause any consternation to parents? The message that he has given in the House today is perhaps one that parents and schools would like to hear. Perhaps his press office might do something about —
Yes. I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with you. You have a point about communication. It is about the use of language and the information on these matters given to parents, elected representatives, the media etc. I have raised it. During the review a number of years ago, one of the areas that I raised with the then education boards was the use of a generic letter. I am more than happy to return to the Education Authority and work with it on that. I am not ruling out any options, but I do not think that there is an opportunity to break it down into tighter geographical areas because, logistically, that would be quite difficult. However, I do believe that there is an opportunity to reword the letter in a way that sets out to parents exactly what is meant and the intent of the letter.