HC Deb 01 November 1994 vol 248 cc1333-5
3. Mr. Tony Banks

To ask the Secretary of State for Education which countries of the European Union have a higher percentage of under-fives in nursery education than Britain.

The Minister of State, Department of Education (Mr. Eric Forth)

The United Kingdom is one of only three countries in the European Union where universal state education starts at the age of five; elsewhere, it is at the age of six or even seven. Although data exist for participation rates in most of the countries of the European Union, they do not compare like with like because they do not, for example, clearly distinguish between education and child care, or take account of whether parents are required to contribute towards the cost.

Mr. Banks

I was asking the Minister about under-fives, not over-fives. I congratulate him on his selective use of statistics—Disraeli would have been greatly impressed. If the French can manage to have 100 per cent. of three to four-year-olds in education and the Belgians can manage 94 per cent., should not we be able to achieve somewhat more than 50 per cent. of under-fives in education? Can the Minister bring himself to congratulate the London borough of Newham, which has the highest percentage of under-fives in nursery classes in the country? The most deprived local authority has achieved that. Will the Minister say something nice about Newham?

Hon. Members


Mr. Forth

I suppose it is difficult to praise a constituency that returns the hon. Gentleman, but I might try on one of my better days. On this occasion, the hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically simplistic. It is surely not good enough to look at a percentage provision. We should look at the quality and effectiveness of the provision. There is no point in trading futile statistics. The fact that the hon. Gentleman claims that there is a certain provision in France says nothing about its nature, its quality or how much of it is paid for by the parents or the taxpayer.

We shall examine such matters, which will inform the review that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has initiated. When we make our proposals, they will take fully into account best practice in other countries and, indeed, in local education authorities. That will inform the review and the policies that we shall eventually place before the House.

Mr. Pawsey

Does my hon. Friend agree that the form of nursery education that may work in Lisbon or Athens need not necessarily be the right form of education in Newham or even Warwickshire? What role does my hon. Friend envisage that the Pre-School Playgroups Association will play in the provision of nursery education in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want, and already encourage, all those involved in pre-five provision to come to us with their thoughts and ideas. We want to take them fully into account and ensure that, whatever regime is eventually proposed, it will take full account of diversity of provision and the maximum parental choice, with a guarantee of quality so that we can ensure that pre-five education is of the best throughout the country. That will be our objective.

Mr. Steinberg

I am bewildered by the Minister's change in attitude to nursery provision. Why has he suddenly become an advocate of nursery provision when previously, time after time, he refused to acknowledge its benefits? Has he now seen the educational grounds for such provision, or has he seen that its introduction is a political necessity?

Mr. Forth

There is no contradiction or difficulty whatever here. The Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have made it clear that we want to develop quality pre-school provision for under-fives. That is our objective and we want to ensure that what we do is carefully considered, properly based and properly delivered. Among other things, my objection has always been to some of the more half-baked and superficial ideas that have come from the Opposition, not least from the hon. Gentleman.