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Nursery Education

Volume 450: debated on Thursday 12 October 2006

1. What meetings Ministers have had with representatives of the nursery sector in the last six months; and if he will make a statement. (92857)

Ministerial colleagues and I have held a number of regular meetings with representatives of the early-years and child care sector over the past six months. They have enabled us to highlight the progress that we are making, with the help of the sector, in delivering our commitments in the 10-year child care strategy. Those commitments include establishing, ahead of schedule, the 1,000th Sure Start children’s centre, as the Prime Minister announced last week.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but does she share my concern that the funding that nurseries receive from the Government does not meet their true costs?

No, I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view about that. In fact, the unprecedented funding that the Government have committed to our youngest children—to early-years education and child care—has enabled the substantial growth in the private and voluntary sector, which is contributing not only to full day care, but to sessional care. Indeed, in his own area, in the 12 months up to the end of 2005, the private and voluntary sector contribution to that market share has risen from 74 to 78 per cent. for provision for three-year-olds. As we continue to extend the free offer to all families, I am sure that we will see that proportion grow, and that is important to us because diversity in the sector is giving parents choice and driving up quality.

Has my right hon. Friend discussed the importance of diagnosing in the early years whether a child needs special educational help? Is she aware that the Select Committee on Education and Skills has done a great deal of work on the issue? Indeed, the recently published special educational needs report links into it. Will she take a message to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills that the Select Committee is deeply disappointed by the response that we have received this week to that important and significant report?

I am sorry that my hon. Friend expresses that view, but I think that he knows that we will debate at length his Select Committee’s important report on children with special educational needs.

As soon as the business managers allow us, we will do so.

It is also important, however, to view the issue in the context of the much wider reforms that the Government are making in children’s services, particularly in children’s centres and children’s trusts, as they are requiring all services to work to together to identify at a much earlier stage the problems that children have and to bring those services to bear around the child and the family in an integrated way, so that their problems are addressed comprehensively and early. That early intervention is very important for children with special educational needs.

Can the Minister explain why popular and high-quality nurseries are not allowed to charge top-up fees? There is a particular demand for that in London and the south-east, where my constituency is located. The principle is established in higher education; why not in nursery education?

Because what we are providing—this is a real dividing line between the Government and the Opposition—is a free entitlement to all three and four-year-olds for 12 and a half hours’ provision at the moment, increasing, we hope, to 15 hours and beyond. The hon. Gentleman is asking for that free entitlement to become a subsidy for better-off parents. The private sector could then make higher charges and better-off parents would be simply allowed to use that subsidy. We will not entertain the prospect of discriminating against poorer families. We will not allow the generation of a two-tier system, in which some families can afford a better quality of care, but poorer families cannot. This will remain a free entitlement for all families—

Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether it is Government policy to support a mixed economy in the provision of child care services? The £3 billion that the Government put annually into the provision of free places gives necessary choice to parents, particularly those of limited means.

Absolutely. Diversity is really important because it not only gives parents choice, but it also drives up quality throughout the sector. I welcome the opportunity that my hon. Friend has given me to correct some of the myths that are flying around. It is still the case that private and voluntary settings provide 81 per cent. of full day-care places. They provide 90 per cent. of sessional places. So they have the vast majority of market share, both for full day care and for sessional places. That is good; it is what we want to see. Public sector provision is not driving private and voluntary sector providers into the ground—quite the opposite is true. The money that we have put in has allowed that sector to grow, and that is very important.

We have heard my hon. Friends’ concerns about nursery funding in their constituencies and I am sure that the Minister is aware of the facts. The dedicated schools grant that local authorities receive to fund free nursery places is under £4 an hour. Is she aware that the National Day Nurseries Association gives examples of where, throughout the country, the cost of staff and overheads alone is nearer £5 an hour? Her transformation fund sets the hourly cost of child care at almost £6 an hour. Little wonder that a report from Camden council says that 90 per cent. of nurseries—

Order. The hon. Lady has made her point. I know what she is telling the House, so the Minister will know.

It is up to local authorities to allocate the dedicated schools grant, both across the age ranges and for early years, between the sectors. It is right that they have the discretion to do that, because they take account of the market situation and local circumstances. The Government have put an unprecedented amount of money into early years: more than £20 billion since 1997. If the hon. Lady were to stand up to speak again, I would ask her: is her party committed to continuing that funding so that the—

May I welcome, and draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to, the new children’s centre in Frankley in my constituency, which will be a great asset to a very deprived part of the area, and also the roll-out of the children’s centre programme? However, I draw her attention to the fact that it is important, as there is availability of capital, for there not to be an over-preoccupation with the physical structures. The ethos of Sure Start—bringing together integrated services and ensuring real responsiveness to local users—is equally, if not more, important.

I agree with my hon. Friend. As the second phase of Sure Start children’s centres proceeds—building on the 1,000 that are in place already and moving to 2,500 over the next two years—the issues that he raises will be important. The key issue is the quality of services for children, to improve their development, but there is also the involvement of parents and the local community in the governance arrangements. We know that by involving parents we are not only doing the best for children, but we are helping those parents—many in disadvantaged situations—to raise their confidence and, through their involvement in children’s centres, perhaps to acquire the skills to get into training and work and to improve their quality of life. That is what children’s centres are doing throughout the country. I am pleased that my hon. Friend will see further children’s centres in his area over the next two years.