HC Deb 22 November 2001 vol 375 cc451-3
6. Jim Knight (South Dorset)

What progress is being made in ensuring a nursery place is available for every three and four-year-old whose parents want it. [14636]

11. Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

What progress she has made in providing free nursery places for three and four-year-olds whose parents require it. [14641]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge)

Since September 1998, all four-year-olds have had access to a free part-time nursery education place. About 62 per cent. of three-year-olds already have access to a free part-time nursery place. I expect that level to rise to 66 per cent. by March 2002, with universal provision by September 2004.

Jim Knight

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. What is her assessment of the number of three-year-olds in Dorset who are offered nursery places? Given the difficulties in recruiting staff for nursery schools in the rural part of my constituency, which are due to transport and remuneration problems, will she encourage and work with Dorset local education authority to ensure that rut al needs are addressed, possibly through a multi- agency approach such as that proposed by the By The Seaside charity, which is based in Swanage?

Margaret Hodge

First, I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that 64 per cent. of three-year-olds in Dorset have access to a nursery education place—a level that is above the national average. Secondly, I recognise the particular difficulties that are faced in ensuring access to places for children in rural areas. We are doing a number of things about that, including undertaking a very strong recruitment campaign, which is successful. It might well be that we can provide a high-quality experience to young children through child minders, working together in networks. Of course, we will work with all voluntary organisations in all areas to ensure that all our children get access to good, high-quality nursery education.

Mr. Smith

I, too, warmly welcome my hon. Friend's initial reply on universal nursery places, although I wonder whether I should declare an interest as the very proud grandfather of two-year-old Ryan Tomos. I have a picture in my wallet that I could show to her later. Will she inform me of the total increase in all education expenditure since 1997?

Margaret Hodge

As the very proud grandma of a three-year-old, of whom I have plenty of pictures in my wallet and who has just started in her new nursery class, which I had the privilege of visiting a couple of weeks ago, I share with my hon. Friend the joy of being a grandparent—it is all love and no blame.

I am extremely proud of our record of increasing spending on nursery education. We have doubled the amount that we are putting in: it is going up from £1 billion to £2 billion. I think that that is one of the most crucial bits of investment that we have undertaken since we have been in office. Giving young children that very good grounding is the best way of trying to ensure that they develop their full potential.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

Is the Minister aware that half the pupils in the intake of a secondary school in a relatively affluent area of my constituency have a reading age of less than their chronological age, and that 30 per cent. of them have a reading age of two years less than their chronological age? What does she see as the root causes of that problem?

Margaret Hodge

I am assuming that the hon. Gentleman was referring to a primary school—

Mr. Gibb

It is a secondary school, but—

Mr. Speaker

Order. In that case, the hon. Gentleman's question is out of order.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

While many parents will welcome what the Minister has said about the availability of nursery places at primary schools for many children, does she agree that many parents prefer a less formal style of education for three and four-year-olds, which can be provided, for example, by pre-school and nursery groups and by child minders? Is not she concerned that there has been a significant fall in the number of pre-school playgroup places that are available? Some 300 closures have occurred throughout the country and 12 in Wiltshire alone. What is she doing to ensure that no undue influence is placed on parents to encourage the inclusion of children in three and four-year-old primary school intakes, thereby putting the pre-school playgroups at risk?

Margaret Hodge

I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that what matters is providing parents with appropriate choices—a child minder, playgroup, or a place in a primary or nursery school—so that they can decide what they want. Our policies are based on that. If more parents choose nursery classes in primary schools or classes in nursery schools, that is up to them. We need to ensure that places and funding are available in the private, voluntary and state sector: we are doing precisely that.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Last year, there were approximately 200 funded places for three-year-olds in the Medway towns. We now have 2,300 places, which is clearly due to the failure to invest that Conservative Members talk about. We want that failure to continue.

Those involved with pre-schools mention the crucial need for training. Will Ofsted, which is now in charge of inspection, link up with local authorities to ensure the provision of a good local training programme that is easily accessible and, most important, affordable?

Margaret Hodge

The quality of the child's experience, wherever he or she is placed—in a playgroup, with a child minder or in a nursery class—depends entirely on the quality of the person who cares for and teaches the child. Investment in training is crucial. We have therefore asked the Learning and Skills Council to put a lot of money aside to ensure proper investment in and training for people who work with young children. We have also set clear targets for the qualifications that we want them to achieve. We want to improve that over time. We acknowledge the importance of the early years stage by investing in training and ensuring good qualifications.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

I am happy to articulate the feeling of the House that we would never have guessed that the Minister could be a grandmother. [Interruption.] That was meant as a compliment. However, one never ceases to be amazed at what a Minister can do with statistics.

Parents in the real world know that thousands of nurseries have closed in the past four years. Ministers like to provide statistics about increasing places on, for example, holiday schemes, but they are not equivalent to a nursery place. Anyone who runs a nursery in the real world knows that the increasing burdens of regulation are such that thousands more nurseries are now under threat. Ministers are fond of targets, and we hear statistic after statistic about them. They display absolute complacency. However, parents know that results, not targets, matter. What will the Minister do to stop the increasing closure of nurseries and loss of nursery places?

Margaret Hodge

I have to say to my hon. friend that, as a recent mum, she will find many more places for her child than existed for my children when I had them some time ago.

My hon. friend complains about regulation, but I hope that she supports our attempt to improve the quality of provision for the early-years phase. The only way to achieve that is through inspection, review and investment in training, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) said. If that is regulation, it is good.

The hon. Lady, not the Government, talks about statistics. If one talks to parents in every constituency, one hears that more places are available. They may be in schools, nursery classes, playgroups or with child minders, but children have access to more places. She needs to get out of this place a little more and spend time in the community.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

The new free places that have been created in nurseries in Lancashire are welcome, but is my hon. Friend aware that difficulties have been created because some people have the allocation and some do not? When can we get over that difficulty by extending the scheme so that they all get places? It ought not to take about three months before we realise that of, say, five places allocated only three have been taken up. In that case, two places have been lost for three months that could have been given to others. The scheme is welcome, but we must ensure that it works more efficiently.

Margaret Hodge

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that, in a period of expansion, there will always be difficulties until there is a place for everyone: some people will get a place and others will not. I recognise the problem that he described but, by 2004, there will be a free nursery place for every three and four-year-old—something on which I have campaigned for 30 years. It is about time that it became a reality in everyone's lives.