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Under-fives Provision

Volume 561: debated on Monday 22 April 2013

We are reforming the regulations for providers for under-fives in order to give greater freedom and flexibility to high-quality providers. New childminder agencies will provide additional support for childminders and more choice for parents. We are reforming the role of local authorities to focus more on disadvantaged children. On Friday, Michael Wilshaw announced that early years inspections will be improved through greater monitoring and that Ofsted will introduce clearer reporting on the qualifications of child care professionals.

Those are laudable but contradictory ends. Last week the owner of a Montessori nursery in York told me that they believe that the dilution of staff-child ratios will lead to a two-tier system and result in fewer staff and lower standards for children from low-income households, yet we know that those are the children who need under-five provision most. What will the Government do to ensure that those children do not fall behind even before they start school?

At present, it is a sad fact that 33% of children arrive at school without the requisite communication and language skills to take part in school education. What Sir Michael Wilshaw has said, as well as Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, is that the most important factor in early education is the qualifications of staff. At the moment, only a third of nurseries have a teacher-led structure. Good providers, such as the Durand academy, provide quality, structured learning from age three, which really benefits children later on. We want to give more high-quality providers that flexibility, but we will do so only where they hire highly qualified staff.

In the early years, all the evidence suggests that structured group activities led by qualified graduates tend to lead to better education outcomes, so may I encourage the Minister to stick to her guns and continue her drive to improve standards in our nurseries?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. When we look at all the evidence from countries such as France, where there are much higher salaries and qualifications in the early years, we see higher quality provision, particularly for the under-threes. Every other country in Europe, including Ireland and Scotland, has higher child-staff ratios and higher staff salaries than we do.