§ 3. Mr. Callaghan
To ask the Secretary of State for Education what assessment has been made of the number of nursery places which would be provided by local education authorities if each one spent at least at the level provided for in the Government's financial settlement.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)
The Government make no planning breakdown of the overall amount allowed for education within the local government finance settlement. It is for authorities and schools to decide how that might best be allocated between the various services, including nursery provision, which authorities provide under discretionary powers.
§ Mr. Callaghan
I thank the Minister for that reply. May I point out, however, that in addition to the huge mailbag that I have already sent to the Department from parents in Rochdale borough who are concerned about the lack of provision for education and the national lack of nursery places, this morning I received a further 53 such letters from concerned parents? In the light of those worries, will the Minister introduce statutory provision for nursery education nationally so as to allay parents' fears?
§ Mr. Forth
No, I can give no such undertaking. In this country we have a system of voluntary provision, which is left to the discretion of elected and accountable education authorities. About 90 per cent. of children receive pre-school education in a variety of different ways. We believe that that is by far the best way to deliver the provision. It is for parents, both as parents and as electors, to decide locally whether they are satisfied with that provision. I believe that we have made good progress in that regard during the 1980s, and that we shall continue to do so in the 1990s.
§ Sir Malcolm Thornton
May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the Select Committee report in the previous Parliament on under-five provision, and especially to its comments on the appropriateness of the curriculum? It is good that 90 per cent. of our children are in some form of pre-school education. However, the Select Committee showed clearly the importance of having a curriculum particularly suited to their needs. May I direct my hon. Friend's attention to that report and ask him to take it on board in any advice that he gives to local authorities?
§ Mr. Forth
We always pay the closest possible attention to Select Committee reports, as I hope goes without saying. My hon. Friend is trying to take us somewhat further than we should like to go at this stage, bearing in mind that we have one of the earliest ages for mandatory universal school provision and, therefore, for curriculum. The pre-five provision is diverse and should remain so.
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor
Will the Minister confirm that parents who live in a Labour county council area have 141 three times more chance of getting a nursery place for their children than those who live in a Conservative council area? What does the Minister intend to do about Conservative councils' appalling record on nursery education? Will the Minister agree that every three and four-year-old should have the right to the best start in education, which means being able to have the advantage of nursery education?
§ Mr. Forth
No, I propose to do nothing of the kind, as local education authorities are responsible to the electorate and make their own decisions about these matters. I do not share the hon. Lady's apparent obsession with mandatory state taxpayer-provided pre-school provision. It is a matter of diversity of provision and of different parents having different provision of the kind that they prefer. If the hon. Lady does not understand that now, she never will.