Clause 172

– in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 26th March 2009.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I beg to move amendment 548, in clause 172, page 93, line 5, at end insert ‘and publish a review annually’.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment 549, in clause 172, page 93, line 16, after ‘may’, insert

‘, with the permission of the Secretary of State,’.

Amendment 553, in clause 172, page 93, line 17, at end insert—

‘( ) The QCDA may, with the permission of the Secretary of State, publish and disseminate, or facilitate the publication or other dissemination of, information relating to exemptions from the Early Years Foundation Stage.’.

Amendment 550, in clause 173, page 93, line 24, at end insert

‘, as defined by the Secretary of State.’.

Amendment 551, in clause 173, page 93, line 36, after ‘may’, insert

‘, with the permission of the Secretary of State,’.

Government amendment 493.

Amendment 552, in clause 175, page 94, line 29, after ‘QCDA’, insert

‘with the permission of the Secretary of State,’.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope, in my first contribution to the Committee’s debates. This is an important part of the Bill, and there are a number of other important parts that I hope the Committee will consider this evening.

These amendments seek to ensure clarity about where the responsibility lies for the curriculum as applied to schools and, importantly, early years providers. Obliging the QCDA to require the Secretary of State’s permission to publish, disseminate or facilitate the publication of the curriculum would ensure that it needed the Secretary of State’s clear agreement to the curriculum, early learning goals and other educational programmes.

There are two reasons why that is important and why it is important to tie the Government closely into the workings of the QCDA. First, although the QDCA has operational responsibility for the day-to-day workings of the system, clear and unambiguous lines of responsibility must go back to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State is accountable to parents, students, teachers, early years workers and providers.

Secondly, the early years foundation stage is a new part of the curriculum, and considerable concerns remain about how it impacts on the early years sector. Some 2,000 child minders have left the child care sector since the EYFS was put in place. The Secretary of State will need to monitor closely the impact of the EYFS, because a careful balance must be kept between the implementation of the strategy and providers’ ability to continue to provide an important part of our child care system. The EYFS is complex and highly prescriptive, and it is clearly having an impact on providers. That is why it is important for the Secretary of State to be kept involved. The Department’s own consultation highlighted a lack of clarity on responsibility in that area, and we feel that the amendments would help.

It might also be useful at this point to remind the Committee of the problems that other hon. Members are having with another non-departmental public body, the Learning and Skills Council. Hon. Members will be aware of the funding crisis in the further education sector. As a result of close questioning by hon. Members, Ministers have had to admit that they were not fully aware of the work being done by the LSC, perhaps because it is a non-departmental public body.

I do not think that such lack of involvement and knowledge of what is going on will be acceptable in such an important matter as the curriculum. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families needs to be aware of what is happening. To avoid doubt, the amendments would make it crystal clear that the Government are ultimately responsible for that important area of policy.

Amendment 553 recognises provisions made by the Government that allow certain providers of early years care with a proven record of offering excellent early years education to request an exemption from the EYFS. That amendment would put a clear responsibility on the QCDA to ensure that information about exemptions is readily available, particularly information on how a provider can make an application.

Schedule 12 will enable the Secretary of State to set up a body, including the QCDA, to review cases for exemptions from the EYFS and to keep those cases under review. The Government have taken seriously the concerns expressed by some providers, hence the exemption procedure. Perhaps the Minister is also aware of the concerns raised about the nature of the exemption process. Exemptions are possible in theory, but they seem to be more difficult to come by in practice. In undertaking to disseminate information on the matter, the QCDA will be able to assess whether the exemption process is practical and proportionate and ensure that the system is workable.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I am sure that the hon. Lady shares my concern that the option of exemption is given only for a limited time—two years, I think. Would her amendment make exemptions possible for a much longer period, given the QCDA’s views?

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

That is not the objective behind the amendment, although I understand the hon. Lady’s concern. Our concern is a more fundamental one about the exemption procedures and processes, which I hope the QCDA would consider if it had more responsibility in that area. I am not sure that I like a system that includes exemptions, because it shows that the system has a fundamental weakness in being unable to accommodate certain providers, notwithstanding what my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said about the Montessori system, which offers what some parents want in terms of quality early years care. My concern is why we do not have a system that can accommodate everybody. It probably shows a weakness in the system, although I take the hon. Lady’s point.

Amendment 548 would require the QCDA to provide an annual report on the curriculum. That would play an important role in keeping everybody who is interested in the workings of the QCDA aware of its work and provide an important opportunity to assess the early years foundation stage at a critical time. The QCDA is uniquely placed, because it looks at both the curriculum and training and it can pull those together. Early years has not had a great deal of time given to it in the Committee. It is rather a shame that some very important early years provisions, and provisions on children’s trust boards and Sure Start, have been shoe-horned into a Bill that has little to do with those subjects. Those provisions have been overshadowed, so I would therefore like to focus on the early years stage.

There is a growing body of evidence that, despite spending £17 billion in the past decade, the improvements in every child’s ability to reach their potential regardless of their start in life are simply not coming through, which we see when we look at the results from key stage 1. The Committee will be aware that early years education and care is critical if a child is to reach his or her potential. The QCDA therefore has a critical role in the curriculum in the early years stage and in training. By the age of two, a child from a more privileged background will already have an academic advantage over their poorer peers and the difference is likely to become more pronounced as their school careers progress.

The Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre report shows that the quality of early years care has a significant effect on a child’s early years achievement levels. In particular, there is a positive effect from attending higher quality or more effective pre-school settings on a child’s subsequent outcomes in maths and reading at the end of year 5. We are not seeing the significant expansion in early years education through the early years entitlement and the more general availability of child care—around 90 per cent. of three and four-year-olds now receive some form of early years education in a formal setting—translate into results for children from our most deprived areas.

The statistics are stark. In 2005, 71 per cent. of the most deprived 10 per cent. of children in this country achieved national standard in writing; yet by 2007, that  figure had fallen to 68 per cent.—I received those figures from the Minister in answer to parliamentary questions. When it comes to reading, the trend is again in the wrong direction, despite the investment. Fewer children in the most deprived 10 per cent. of communities achieve the national standard in key stage 1. An annual report from the QCDA could look at that and throw a spotlight on it, and on all the other issues, such as the need to review the EYFS, which is critical.

The report could also look at what training needs need to be adapted to ensure that children get the start in life that they need. It is important to include training in the report. It is in line with QCDA’s objectives as set out in the Bill, and other answers to parliamentary questions have revealed yet again that there has been a decline in the number of child care staff qualified to level 3 in the 30 per cent. most deprived areas in the country. I remind the Committee that one in four early years staff are still not qualified to the most basic standard. That is the case behind the amendments.

Will the Minister explain the meaning of the Government amendment? The original meaning of the Bill will be quite significantly changed by it. Originally, the Bill meant that not all regulated assessments would be kept under review. Does she mean that the QCDA will keep every assessment under review, or are non-regulated assessments excluded? If the latter is true, will she outline exactly what is a non-regulated assessment and which assessments would be affected?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families 6:00 pm, 26th March 2009

A common theme of many of the amendments we have been dealing with is that they seek to put a lot of detail into the Bill about how QCDA and Ofqual should do their work. I am sure the Committee will be familiar with what I am about to say. As a matter of good practice, legislation should as far as possible set out the organisation’s objectives, give it the necessary powers and leave the how—the processes it should use and so on—to the organisation to decide. How the bodies need to do things may change over time as circumstances change in ways we cannot currently predict. So the less process we put on the Bill the better.

Amendment 548 falls firmly into that category. It may indeed be appropriate for QCDA to publish regular reports on the curriculum, but there is no reason to require it to do so in the Bill. Amendments 549 and 551 would require QCDA to gain the Secretary of State’s permission before publishing or disseminating information about the curriculum or early learning goals and educational programmes. This is unnecessary. I think it would be unduly burdensome and bureaucratic on both QCDA and the Secretary of State for permission to have to be sought before QCDA could exercise some fairly core functions. Amendment 552, similarly, would require the Secretary of State’s approval before QCDA could provide services or other assistance. This again would be unduly burdensome.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

The Minister is trotting out the line that this is burdensome. We have heard her say that at earlier stages of the Committee. I suggest that a burdensome role is perhaps part of the ministerial responsibility. Given the current problems with the Learning and Skills Council and the lack of understanding that the  Minister responsible for that part of the organisation shows in explaining what was going on, surely the Secretary of State should have a role in understanding what is going on with these sorts of non-departmental public bodies.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

The amendment says that the Secretary of State’s approval would be required before QCDA could provide services or other assistance. If a school came to the QCDA seeking advice on the implementation of the curriculum, why should the QCDA have to seek ministerial approval before providing the advice requested?

Amendments 550 and 553 relate to the early learning goals and educational programmes which are part of QCDA’s remit. Amendment 550 requires that these must be as defined by the Secretary of State. The amendment is not necessary because the QCDA is already bound to the Secretary of State’s definitions. Clause 173(5) states that

“the early learning goals and educational programmes” are those requirements specified under section 39(1)(a) of the Childcare Act 2006. Under this Act, the early learning goals and educational programme are already specified by the Secretary of State in section 2 of the statutory framework for the early years foundation stage document. QCDA has no power to change these existing legal requirements.

Finally, amendment 553 proposes an additional power for the QCDA to publish and disseminate, or facilitate the publication or other dissemination of information relating to exemptions from the early years foundation stage. I agree that QCDA needs to be able to publish such information, but this amendment is not necessary to enable that. QCDA has a power in clause 173(4) to publish and disseminate information relating to the early learning goals, educational programmes and assessment arrangements for the EYFS. This would include information relating to exemptions.

I hope that the hon. Lady will be willing to withdraw the amendment. Before I move to Government amendment 493, it would be extremely remiss of me not to wish to hon. Lady a happy birthday. She reminded us of it on Tuesday. She also asked me about the thinking behind Government amendment 493. It will ensure that the QCDA can keep all regulated assessment arrangements under review. As drafted, clause 174 restricted QCDA’s general review function to assessment arrangements that were not regulated assessments, in other words, assessments that were outside the orders made under sections 128(3) and 128(5) of the 2002 and 2006 Acts and therefore outside Ofqual’s scope. In the explanatory notes to that provision we confirmed that this was not intended to stop QCDA reviewing regulated assessment arrangements where that was appropriate for purposes connected to its other functions. But for the sake of consistency with the approach of the Bill to QCDA’s other functions we have decided to make this explicit.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I thank the Minister for taking the time to go through such a detailed response to this group of amendments. I am reassured that she agrees that it may be appropriate for a report to be issued by this organisation but it is not required by the Bill and I hope that feeling of it being appropriate is something that will be  communicated to it. We would all want to be mindful of the work it is doing in this important area of the curriculum.

In terms of amendment 553, again I was reassured somewhat by the Minister’s response that she agreed that there was already a function that the QCDA could disseminate information in this area. I hope that it goes further than that and the QCDA actually looks at the procedures and processes behind the exemptions, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said earlier. She raised an issue around time limits of the exemptions. There is a great deal of concern about complexity in this area. I do not agree that there is no need to clarify the Secretary of State’s role within the QCDA and I remain concerned that there are problems with non-departmental public bodies and understanding the level of responsibility that Ministers are willing to take for decisions made by non-departmental public bodies. I am mindful that the Committee has long proceedings today so I will not push this to a vote but I thank the Minister for her comments. I beg to ask to leave to withdraw.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 172 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 173 ordered to stand part of the Bill.