Clause 73 - meaning of ''nursery education'' and related expressions

Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 15th January 2002.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

When I saw that this part of the Bill was about interpretation, I was disappointed that, although clause 73 is entitled

''meaning of 'nursery education' and related expressions'' it does not, in fact, explain the meaning of nursery education.

I was hoping that by reading this clause I would find a true definition of nursery education. The clause says that ''nursery education'' means:

''full-time or part-time education suitable for children who have not attained compulsory school age''

The debate, however, has raged for many years about the difference between child care and education. Where does education overlap with child care? When does child care also become education? Although these are matters of interest for the theorists involved, my point is that they are matters of practicality when it comes to spending taxpayers' money. I have not sought to amend this clause because I am looking for a further explanation from the Minister on the Government's thinking and intentions in this area. For example, the Government have pledged to provide places in early years education for all three-year-olds whose parents want them. But, what does that mean? Does it mean in a pre-school, in a playgroup, in a day nursery, at a holiday club, or with a childminder? The words in the Bill, which is being passed by a democratic process, should be clear and open to no misunderstanding. I appreciate, however, that it is not always possible to draw a line between what is child care and what is nursery education.

In every statistic that issuess forth from the Government we have confusion upon confusion. With each answer that my hon. Friends and I receive to questions such as, ''How many places are there for children aged three, four or five?'' the position becomes less clear. For example, in an answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell on Tuesday 18 December 2001 to a question he asked on

Monday 10 December, we were told that the number of playgroups and pre-schools has reduced over the last three years, but that the number of day nurseries has increased. Are the Government saying that that is in equal measure? They appear to saying that, although the number of playgroups and pre-schools has reduced, the increase in the number of day nurseries means that the situation is better than it was.

Two months ago, when I questioned the responsible Minister about this during Education questions, I felt that we were given three different answers in the space of two minutes. The answer is not clear at all. I had hoped that, as this clause is entitled,

''Meaning of 'nursery education' and related expressions'' it would actually tell us what the Government mean by nursery education and pre-school education and the entitlement of each child. If a parent reads in the newspapers that the Government have pledged a place for each child aged three or four, they may well think that their little boy or girl can go to a certain nursery school or day centre; but it is not clear. If it appears in the Bill, it should be clear. I have a very simple question: what do the Government mean by nursery education? Can we please have a proper definition that can be relied upon?

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

I am delighted, Mr. Pike, that the respective position of our football teams in division one remains the same as when we last met.

I have a serious response to the points made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest. The clause responds directly to the concerns that the hon. Lady has expressed. It does so in several ways. It defines the meaning of nursery education very clearly as

''full-time or part-time education suitable for children who have not attained compulsory school age''.

It then goes on to recognise, for the first time in legislation, that there are a number of organisations in the private, voluntary and state sectors providing that sort of education. That is clarification from a historical perspective. Making the foundation stage part of the national curriculum requirement further clarifies the responsibilities of those who are providing a nursery education in any of those settings. Legislation has been vague and ambiguous in the past, and clause 73 is designed to tackle that ambiguity.

The hon. Lady asked whether the Government would put in the Bill pledges linked to child care and nursery provision. She knows full well that our record on those issues is second to none. Our commitment to future provision is unprecedented in view of this country's historic lack of investment in early years, whether in child care or nursery provision.

Nothing is more important in the development of our future citizens than getting the level of investment and commitment right in the early years. The Bill assists us in that, as well as enshrining the foundation stage in legislation for the first time. On the whole, that is popular with all providers, whether in the state, voluntary, or private sectors. What we mean by nursery education has never been clearer than in the

Bill. If the hon. Lady reflects on the situation, I am sure that she will accept that her reasonable concern is addressed directly in the Bill.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I appreciate that the Minister is genuinely trying to answer my question, but he has not done so. What is the difference between a day nursery and a playgroup or a pre-school and a holiday club? Do the Government intend that all those should be lumped together under the definition:

''education suitable for children who have not attained compulsory school age''?

What does ''suitable'' mean? Who decides what is suitable? In one part of the country the Government's pledge for a place for a three-year-old might be interpreted as two hours a week in a playgroup, supervised by an unqualified assistant. In another part of the country the education authority might decide that a three-year-old requires five mornings a week in a pre-school, supervised or taught by a qualified teacher.

Will this be left as a loose definition so that those who provide funding in different parts of the country can come to their own conclusion about what they consider is necessary or suitable? Who is to decide on suitability? The Minister has missed one of my main points. How will parents know that there is a pledge for their children to have a certain type of education at a certain age when it is not clearly defined what that should be? We all know what children are entitled to between the ages of five and 16. If the Government have made a pledge, that pledge ought to be clear. The Minister's answer has not made it any clearer.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the problems of definition is that in many areas, the provision is determined by the early years and child care development partnerships, which are largely partnerships of providers, rather than customers? Consequently the provision tends to be tailored to what is already being provided, rather than what is desired by the consumer.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I accept that. Furthermore, parents generally know that at the age of five it is best for most children is to be in a mainstream school learning the basic curriculum. That is straightforward, but parents do not necessarily know what is best for a child at three or four. As the Minister said, that area is developing. The importance of education from a very early age has only just been recognised, and I recognise that, too.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 5:15 pm, 15th January 2002

I will certainly give way to the chairman of the all-party group on child care, of which I am vice-chairman.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

I am afraid that my point is a partisan one. Many Labour authorities have been providing early-years and nursery education for many years, despite not being funded to provide that service. Now we have a Government who are willing to spread the funding across every community that

wants it and to communities, such as mine in Doncaster, that are able to offer added value for services on what they were trying to provide under Conservative Administrations.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I accept that point, but I would take it further. Many Conservative-controlled authorities have been providing far more than other such authorities. With respect to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, I must say that I expect that many authorities controlled by the Liberal Democrats have been doing the same. That reinforces my point that we do not have equality of provision throughout the country. It has been left to different education authorities to decide what is suitable. If the Government intend to leave the matter to every education authority or provider, let them say so, but if they are making a positive and definite pledge to all the children in the country, let that be made definite.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Lady confuses me a little. I am trying to understand the point that she is making, but I think that most of us are struggling to get to grips with it. Surely she is not saying that we want all early-years education, wherever it is delivered in the country, to be the same, because that is what we mean by equality of provision. Surely the Government are providing funding and will then audit the funded provision by means of the curriculum and Ofsted inspections to ensure that the money is being used appropriately. Does that not give the hon. Lady enough safeguards to accept that there is equality of access to provision, although the provision may be different?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

No, it does not, although I appreciate the point. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman is confused about what I am asking; I am asking questions because my hon. Friends and I are confused about what the Government mean. I am pursuing the point, as I am beginning to suspect that the Government want to leave the matter in some confusion because for various reasons they do not want to provide a definition. If they do not want to provide one, let them say so, but if they truly want to give a definition, let the Minister give it now.

The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that we do not want provision to be exactly the same throughout the country, but the Government have made a huge fuss in spinning about the promises that they have made about places for three and four-year-olds and so on. If they are making a pledge, it should be clear, so that people will know whether it has been adhered to. The clause is not clear, which is why I am asking further questions.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

I will be content for the people of this country to consider whether the Government are spinning on child care and early-years education or whether we have delivered significantly and will deliver even more in future. I will certainly be happy for people to contrast this Government's record of investment in child care and early-years education

with what went on for the 20 years when there was a disgraceful abdication of responsibility in that policy area. That is what the debate is really about, although I am sorry to have to be partisan in this Committee. The hon. Lady is casting aspersions on the Government's commitment in this policy area. I am tempted to suggest that she should combine my original answer with that of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough to get what she really needs. However, if she wants me to go one stage further, I will clarify what is already in the public domain about our commitment for three-year-olds. This is not a revelation to the Committee; the pledge on three-years-olds is clear. It relates to providers in receipt of nursery education grant, whether they are in the maintained or non-maintained sector. They must follow a curriculum that is consistent with the foundation stage to be provided with two and a half hours of funded early education a day. That is the unequivocal pledge, which is clear and often repeated by Ministers.

It is offensive for the hon. Member for Isle of Wight to suggest that early-years partnerships are not consumer focused and do not consult parents or take account of users' needs, but are purely a vehicle for providers to maintain the status quo on the existing configuration of provision. There is no evidence to support that attack on their performance and responsibilities. They have been generally successful, innovative and responsive to community needs. They are representative in terms of voluntary and private sector involvement and, in my experience, go to extraordinary lengths to consult parents and their local communities before they decide on appropriate early-years and nursery education provision.

The hon. Lady is sincere in her commitment to the issues and has a strong belief in what we are trying to do with early-years and nursery education. However, I do not accept her concerns about a lack of clarity, either with the legislation or the Government's pledge, and do not believe that her aspersions are fair or reasonable. I ask the hon. Lady to accept my response.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 73 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 94 ordered to stand part of the Bill.