asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for what percentage of children under the age of 5 years there is now nursery provision.
About 43 per cent. of all children between the ages of 3 and 5 years receive some playgroup or educational provision, mostly 4-year-olds in primary schools.
I am sure that the whole House welcomed the report about preschool education in Ulster. Will the Minister use his best endeavours to ensure that existing and future nursery education are integrated so that there is at least a basis for integration in the earliest stage of primary education?
We have said that nursery school places will be doubled between now and 1983. As in other aspects of education in Northern Ireland, those facilities will be at the disposal of every section of the community. Indeed, we want to encourage integration, where possible.
As the Under-Secretary has pointed out that much of this education is carried out in primary schools, will the Government hasten the reconsideration of present policy regarding the admission of 4-year-olds, especially in the case of small village schools, where it is important to have suitable sizes of class throughout the years of attendance?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, in Northern Ireland there is probably a somewhat higher percentage of 4-year-olds in primary schools than in other parts of the United Kingdom. The Question relates to nursery education, and there we are trying to step up the numbers of places available. But, of course, where we can get more 4-year-olds into primary schools, we shall do so.
Is it not a fact that the Under-Secretary's reply is an admission of failure to provide nursery places for all the 26,000 infants, as promised by the Government four years ago, within this four-year period? Will he take steps to talk to the Churches about ending sectarian education?
All that the Government have to answer for, according to the hon. Gentleman, is failure on almost every subject. But the pre-school group of children in Northern Ireland is as well served as pre-school groups in any other part of the United Kingdom. However, we have admitted that we can improve that aspect of education, and we are hoping to double the number of nursery school places between now and 1983.