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Nursery Schools

Volume 585: debated on Tuesday 9 September 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(John Penrose.)

It is a pleasure, Sir Roger, to serve under your chairmanship—something that I seem to have done quite a bit recently; we are entertaining one another on the same Bill Committee. I welcome the Minister to his place. We genuinely look forward to working with his team, and I hope his appointment will usher in a new era of listening, which we have not had a lot of from the Department for Education team in the past four years. He will be relieved to know that I do not intend this debate to be made up of political ping-pong; the neglect of nursery schools in this country spans this Government and the previous Government. I hope, however, that we will at least get a Department that listens to what is happening and ceases the neglect.

The maintained education nursery sector does not have a long history in this country. Prior to the 1970s, local authorities were prevented from opening education nursery schools and offering early-years education. I do not know why that is, so do not ask me, but that was what happened. In the early 1970s, the rules were changed and local authorities were encouraged to provide nursery education for pupils aged three and above. Prior to that, most centres known as nursery schools were social services-run provisions or health-run provisions, largely admitting children with significant special educational needs or children on the at-risk register. From the early 1970s onwards, local authorities started to open education nursery schools, often concentrating on areas of deprivation first. The first nursery schools that opened in the 1970s were often large, 52-place provisions, offering early education to 26 children in the morning and 26 children in the afternoon.

Once the benefits of early universal provision became clearer from the 1980s onwards, local authorities started to follow a policy of opening nursery classes attached to infant or primary schools, with the long-term intention of creating universal coverage, but that meant that local authorities often had an uneven pattern of provision by the 1990s. Nursery classes were attached to most, but not all primary schools, and large nursery schools often sited in the wrong geographic areas. From the early 1990s onwards, there was a programme of gradually reducing standard numbers in nursery schools, amalgamating nursery schools and nursery classes and closing some nursery schools. There were moves to more appropriate buildings or more appropriate geographic settings for others.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I know she has tremendous experience in child services. She talked about closures, and we have learned on Teesside that the North Tees and Hartlepool Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is closing two nurseries, at North Tees hospital and Hartlepool hospital. Will she join me in expressing shock at such a decision, which will lead to excellent provision going away and lots of jobs being lost?

I am disappointed to hear that, because I remember visiting those nurseries when I was an assistant director of education in Sunderland in the mid-1990s. They were seen as a beacon of good integrated practice, bringing together education, health and social services. They were offering what we were hoping would be the future.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on an important subject. On a slightly more positive note, will she congratulate the six Cambridgeshire nursery schools—three of which, Brunswick, The Fields and Colleges, are in my constituency, and one of which, Homerton, is a few metres outside it—on being part of the first nursery teaching school in the country? That shows that there can be excellence, which we can, I hope, spread to everywhere else.

Yes, I congratulate them. That is exactly the model that the Education Committee was suggesting for nursery schools in the future. I am pleased to hear that; perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I can have a chat after the debate.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Chair, I apologise for being slightly late. On a point of clarification, given her experience can the hon. Lady say whether we have the necessary qualified staffing for nursery provision? Is that an issue? Some 130,000 places were issued this year, but there are still tens of thousands of spaces that cannot be filled. Is there a staffing problem?

I will come to staffing in nursery schools in a moment. The qualified teaching staff in nursery schools are what makes them so good.

There were 475 nursery schools in 2003, and there are now 414. While the number of nursery schools has steadily reduced, the number of children attending them has remained pretty static. There was a dip in the mid-2000s, but admissions are rising again as a result of increasing numbers of live births, and because educationalists and parents recognise the additionality that nursery schools deliver.

However, as local authorities have been hit by unprecedented cuts in funding since 2010, nursery schools are finding themselves at greater risk. There is no doubt that each nursery school place is relatively expensive when compared with a nursery class place, but the evidence is clear that that is because of the high proportion of graduate and teacher-trained staff. It is equally clear that that is what gives them their additionality and makes them so successful. They provide great outcomes for all children, including the most disadvantaged, and they outperform any other form of early-years education provision, even that in the most affluent areas. That is an important distinction.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I absolutely concur with her on the high standards achieved in maintained nursery schools, but is she concerned that one of the hits on the maintained sector was moving to the single funding formula prior to 2010? We need to look at funding for good quality nursery education.

I absolutely agree, and I will come to that. I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention.

What is happening to nursery schools now and why should that matter? As I said at the beginning, all Governments—this Government, the previous Government and no doubt the next Government—periodically state that they want good schools for every child, the best possible start in education, particularly for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and good outcomes. Yet successive Governments have failed to recognise that that is exactly what they have in nursery schools.

Every Government say that they are not in the business of closing good schools, and yet that is precisely what is being allowed to happen through the neglect of this sector. Historically and currently, nursery schools have provided the best educational outcomes of any model in the early-years sector for all children, particularly those who would be described as vulnerable or disadvantaged. That is why what happens to nursery schools now matters and why it is important that we intervene.

Everyone is talking about school readiness as the silver bullet to improved early-years outcomes, but Ofsted’s evidence to the Education Committee’s recent inquiry into early years and child care showed us very clearly that when it comes to school readiness, nursery schools are the most successful delivery model. They are also the most successful model when it comes to integrating pupils with SEN, including the most severe SEN, into mainstream schools, and I will talk a little more about that later. Furthermore, they are the most successful model for narrowing the gap in the early years, for helping to get vulnerable children and families into a more secure place and for long-term outcomes for their small pupils.

I do not just rely on Education Committee evidence. Ofsted evidence clearly demonstrates that 90% of nursery schools are judged to be good or outstanding. That goes way, way beyond any other form of early-years provision in the system—here or in any other developed country, so far as I am aware.

My hon. Friend is explaining that stand-alone nurseries are the best form, and all the evidence points to that. Is the key factor in that the quality of the staff? By improving quality and standards and providing qualified teacher status for all lead staff in all nursery settings, can we have the same standards in other nursery settings or does she think we should be moving towards having a greater number of stand-alone nurseries?

I will discuss leadership in nursery schools shortly, but the Education Committee model suggests that nursery schools should stand at the centre of the hub-and-spokes model, providing good practice out to nursery classes across their region.

I expect the Minister to tell me in his response that primary schools are judged as a whole, that there is no separate Ofsted inspection of nursery classes in a primary school and that nursery classes cannot therefore be judged against nursery schools, but I remind him of what I just said: 90% of nursery schools are judged to be good or outstanding, with the same results in disadvantaged and affluent areas. That goes beyond what we can say about the primary sector across the country.

Of nurseries inspected between 1 January and 31 March 2014, 55% were judged outstanding in comparison with 8% of primaries and 14% of secondaries. The disparity is huge. I also remind the Minister that I do not have to rely solely on statistics to support my case; I can draw on 25 years of direct experience in education, and I know what I have seen over and over again in nursery schools.

Of nursery schools judged by Ofsted up to 30 June 2013, 58% were rated outstanding in leadership and management, which compares with 20% in primary, 29% in secondary and 39% in SEN. Nursery school provision is extremely well managed and is recognised as such by Ofsted. I ask the Minister to consider that 62% of nursery schools are in 30% of the most disadvantaged areas in England, so we are getting outstanding results and leadership despite the fact that the schools largely operate in such areas. There are a higher proportion of nursery schools in the north-east—it appears that there may be slightly fewer in future—than we would see nationally, and those nursery schools are concentrated in the most disadvantaged areas of the most disadvantaged region. Yet we are seeing incredibly good results.

Nursery schools admit children from many different backgrounds and give priority to children in social and medical needs categories. That is confirmed by the Department for Education’s survey statistics: at least 11% of children at 47% of nursery schools have special educational needs. No other category of school, except special schools, comes anywhere close to that level of admission and yet no other category of early-years provision comes close to the outcomes that nursery schools achieve with SEN pupils. Ofsted has highlighted that nursery schools have particular expertise in the teaching of young bilingual children. Children from BME backgrounds make up 33% of nursery school pupils and yet have outcomes that outperform BME children of a similar age attending nursery classes, even in the most affluent areas. The statistics really highlight the quality of the provision that nursery schools provide.

A significantly higher proportion of maintained nursery schools offer wrap-around day care provision than any other form of maintained early-years provision—just the kind of provision that the Government say that they want to support working parents and parents training for or looking for work. Nursery schools often provide it much cheaper than can be achieved in the non-maintained sector, which is one of the reasons why parents like them so much. Why on earth have successive Governments not recognised the value of nursery schools and stopped the threats to their future? It is beyond me. The Government say that they want good schools and these are the best in their sector by far.

In her last appearance before the Education Committee on 18 June, the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), appeared to give just two reasons why she was not wholly supportive of nursery schools. She told me that

“49 local authorities do not have any maintained nursery schools at all”

but I reminded her that that meant that 153 or 154 local authorities have at least one and that many have more. It seemed sensible to the Select Committee that local authorities and the Government should use these highly-specialised beacons of excellence to build good practice across authorities. The Minister also told me that nursery schools are expensive, and they are—this is where things do become slightly political, because it is about priorities—because they employ a head teacher, a higher proportion of graduate staff and qualified teachers. That, too, is why they are so successful.

Yes, these tried and tested, highly successful schools may be slightly more expensive than nursery classes, but they are nowhere near as expensive as the experimental, untried and untested free schools programme that the Government are pushing so hard and that has a budget overspend, at the last count, of well over a billion pounds. It is not only me who recognises the value of nursery schools and is concerned about Government policy. The British Association for Early Childhood Education described them as “beacons of high quality” and as playing

“a leading role in developing the early years work force”.

The Ofsted chief inspector’s first annual report in 2014 on early years noted:

“The only early education provision that is at least as strong, or even stronger in deprived areas compared with wealthier areas is nursery schools”.

If we are concerned about narrowing the gap and, like the Education Committee, about outcomes for white working-class children, nursery schools in deprived areas seem to be the most successful model.

Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the best early visits that a new Education Minister could conduct would be to the Pen Green centre, which the Committee has visited, to see the masters and PhD courses? It not only provides an excellent local service to children, many of whom are from deprived backgrounds, but also acts as a beacon of best practice and education for a much wider area—nationally and internationally. The Minister would be spending his time well.

I agree. The Minister smiled at that, so I am assuming that he has heard of Pen Green, which is known internationally for its outstanding provision. Margy Whalley will make him feel very welcome.

Nursery schools right across the country are providing outstanding outcomes for young children and I could give the Minister a long list that would start with Pen Green, but I want to mention just two. The Rachel Keeling nursery school is situated in one of the most deprived parts of London and yet has been identified in the “The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education” report as providing high-quality early education that has a continuing influence on its young pupils’ intellectual and social development and their subsequent progress in school.

Oxclose nursery school in Washington is another one that I know well. When I was working with parents in Sunderland in the early 1990s to include children with special needs in the mainstream, we thought, rather foolishly, that we would start with the easy end of SEN—children with less significant SEN and perhaps younger children—but it never works out that way. As soon as it became known that we were looking at inclusion, I received two phone calls. One was from a 14-year-old child who had spent her life in a special school because she was in a wheelchair and had brittle bones. We would think that amazing nowadays, but it was the norm in the 1990s—it appears that if someone stepped off a path and twisted their ankle, they would end up in a special school. The girl told me that she wanted to go to university and recognised that that was much less likely to happen if she continued to attend a special school.

The second phone call was from the parent of a two-year-old with quadriplegia—he had a little bit of head movement. He was a delightful little boy and he is a delightful young man now. His mother wanted, as was absolutely her right, mainstream school provision for her child. We definitely started with the more difficult end of SEN.

I worked closely with the head teachers of the Oxclose cluster, comprising the nursery, primary and secondary schools. The only thing that they had going for them at the time was that they were on the flat and close together. By far the most important factor, however, was that the head teachers of the three schools shared my vision of what inclusive provision should be.

If the Minister goes to Pen Green, which is halfway up the country, will he please go a little further and visit the Oxclose cluster in Sunderland? If he wants to see truly amazing, inspirational and outstanding provision that will move him, he could go nowhere better. Oxclose nursery school was truly inspirational then for all its pupils and is truly inspirational today. I strongly advise the Minister to visit any of the schools mentioned or any of the 400-odd nursery schools across the country if he wants to see outstanding early-years provision. Do it quickly, because that provision is under threat.

The very future of nursery schools is under threat in an era of local authority cuts, Government pressure on schools to expand reception classes, rising infant class sizes, the expansion of foundation provision and relentless Government pressure to push more and more children into schools earlier.

Nursery schools are facing constant pressure to merge with local primaries. A recent survey of nursery schools highlighted how maintained nurseries are on a knife edge, threatened by cuts in local authority funding, based on the flawed premise that they are simply one more form of child care and pressure from Government that funding levels for all providers should be the same, with no recognition of the special provision offered or of the way in which nursery schools can and do outperform every other form of early-years provision.

More than three quarters of nursery schools in the survey said that they were concerned about their immediate future viability or that they faced imminent loss of their independence. None faced immediate closure, but many said that they were at risk of closure in future, while only 12% said that they were optimistic about their future. Yet the Department for Education’s own child care and early-years parents’ survey for 2012 to 2013 highlighted that the value of nursery schools was beyond the number of children enrolled, acknowledging the vital role that they play in training early-years professionals throughout the sector.

The number of nursery schools has gradually eroded over the past 10 to 15 years. The Government need to look at that carefully. Ministers go all over the place to look for good practice, but seem to fail to recognise that we have outstanding practice in this country and we are letting it wither on the vine. I am calling on the Government to wake up before it is too late. They must recognise how good nursery schools are and the vital contribution that they make—not only to the children whom they admit, but to the training of early-years specialists throughout the sector. I call on the Government to stop the financial and educational neglect that is leading to an unstable future.

The right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned the financial pressure on nursery schools. In 2010 the Government rolled 14 different grants into the single funding formula and they have subsequently rolled more grants into the early-years funding formula. That is what is putting nursery schools under pressure: the refusal to acknowledge that not all nursery provision can survive on the same amount of money. It is not about being equitable across the system but about recognising where good practice is and accepting that it does need to be paid for. Let us recognise that nursery schools offer the best and most successful provision in the early-years landscape and build on that.

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), who is a distinguished member of the Education Committee. As she showed in her powerful and passionately argued speech, she is deeply informed about education and the welfare of young people.

The future of nursery education is an important issue, and one at which the Education Committee looked closely during our inquiry into Sure Start children’s centres last year. As I touched on, we visited the Pen Green centre for children and families in Corby, run, as the hon. Lady said, by the brilliant Margy Whalley. We also visited the Netherlands and Denmark in February 2013 to compare provision for early years in those countries with that in England.

The clear message we heard is that education is too important to wait until children reach school age. In particular, we concluded that if we are serious about closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children, it is imperative that Ministers should set out coherent, long-term thinking on early years and children’s centres. It is worth asking the Minister—a central message from many of us today—not to let coherence or a desire for uniformity and equity to allow or excuse the destruction of rare, peculiar centres of excellence that do a brilliant job and that are found to be doing so by everyone who looks at them.

The Government have a vision of doing more through schools, utilising the resource, and we heard during our hearings on the children’s centres that perhaps the previous Government made an error in building entirely new things, rather than better utilising the infrastructure that they had. None the less, it is possible to allow infant schools to do more for younger children and to provide good or, I hope, excellent provision in an area, without destroying those often long-standing nursery schools that are brilliant today. That is the appeal to the Minister: not to get so caught up in coherence and uniformity that we end up, inadvertently, destroying jewels that might not be everywhere, but certainly are present and deserve to be preserved. At that point, I could sit down—

I am giving a chance for a pause for thought. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Denmark and Holland—I went on those visits—and much higher spending is clearly committed to early years in those countries, as part of the contribution of having such well-trained and excellent staff. Does he agree that that is the route we need to go down in this country? To do so, to make the case and to be accepted by Governments of whichever colour, do we need to demonstrate that that would be not only a cost, but a long-term saving?

I will come on to funding and raising the status of early years. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come back to that, but he is right.

Nursery schools do a particularly good job of supporting children from poorer homes—that is worth saying. The Government’s educational reforms have two main aims: to raise standards for all and to close the gap in attainment. If we have things that do a peculiarly good job in looking after the interests of disadvantaged children, we should be extremely wary before risking, inadvertently or otherwise, their destruction.

Ofsted’s early-years report, published in March, stated that only just over a third of children from low-income backgrounds reach a good level of development in the early years. In some local areas, that figure is less than a fifth. Crucially, some types of provision, such as childminders, are considerably less likely to be good or outstanding in deprived areas. By contrast, Ofsted found that children from low-income families make the strongest progress when supported, as has been said, by highly qualified staff, in particular with graduate-level qualifications. Where are such staff most frequently found? In nursery schools.

To quote Ofsted’s report:

“Nursery schools have high levels of graduate level staff and perform as strongly in deprived areas as in more affluent ones.”

Of how many types of educational provision can we say that they perform as strongly in deprived areas as in more affluent ones? I cannot think of one, actually, but we have nursery schools managing to achieve that, to achieve what the previous Government and this Government want to do for social justice, delivered through education. I again make the case: let us ensure that we do not inadvertently lose them.

Despite that, the Government’s policy seems a little confused. The Education Committee expressed regret that the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Childcare and Education, now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, showed little enthusiasm for maintained nurseries, many of which have closed over the past decade. Likewise, my Committee expressed concerns about how the Government’s ambition to create an integrated nought-to-18 teaching work force will be delivered successfully. It is important to focus on that, although it sounds like a soundbite. An integrated nought-to-18 teaching work force is the Government’s stated policy. The then Minister told us that she wanted

“to see a much greater consistency across the teaching workforce and much less of a silo between the early years and primary school”.

Who can say, in any party, that she was not right to do so?

With that in mind, Ministers have set out their plans to reduce the number of different early-years qualifications, to improve the quality of training and to raise the status and quality of the work force by replacing the current early-years professional status qualification with new grades of early-years teacher and early-years educator. Early-years teachers will be graduates and will need to meet the same entry requirements and pass the same skills tests as trainee school teachers. So far, so good: there is an inspiring vision of integrated nought-to-18 teaching work force, with an upgrading and re-engineering of the training, requirements and qualifications of those working in that sector. They will not, however, be accorded qualified teacher status in the same way as primary and secondary teachers. That is not to visit the obsession of the shadow Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), with the tiny number of people who are not qualified teachers, which seems to be a sideline in the overall education debate; it is to go to the heart of the status of those people in relation to those who work in primary schools.

My Committee concluded that the Government are right to want to increase the qualifications of the early-years work force. As Susan Gregory of Ofsted reminded us, the historic situation is that

“you need a higher qualification at entry level to work with animals than you do to work with young children.”

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for raising standards in early-years education, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I am interested in his comments about the new qualification. May I infer that he agrees that the Government should take action now to equalise the status of the new qualification, so that it does have qualified teacher status? It is bizarre that we have circumstances in which graduates can earn half as much for teaching those between the ages of nought and five as if they chose to teach early-years three to seven. Some early-years teachers can command twice the salary. Is that not a poor state of affairs?

I agree with the hon. Lady that that is an anomaly in the Government’s vision for the future. There is an inconsistency. However, I would gently chide her by saying that the money has to be found from somewhere, because there are real cost implications. If we are going to will the ends, we have to will the means, and that will mean taking tough decisions—unless people think that there is an infinite money tree somewhere. We will have to take the existing budget and orient it more to the early years. It could be said that this Government have done that in a number of ways, from abolition of the education maintenance allowance—that act was enormously unpopular—at one end to the introduction of the offer for two-year-olds and its extension from 20% to 40% at the other.

The truth is that considerably more money is being spent on early-years provision, despite overall constraints on spending. I would imagine there will a combination of some re-engineering—a lot of which will be unpopular, as anyone we take the money away from will hate us for it—and potentially finding additional funds. However, given that this supposedly austere Government are still spending over £100 billion a year more than they have coming in, I am not clear that additional funding outside the budget could easily be found.

I probably did not make myself clear enough in my earlier intervention. The point I was driving at is how we make the case for using money further upstream. It is about the costs of social failure that are avoided by getting early-years provision right. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the case can be made for saving money later in life by getting early-years provision to the highest standard possible, that will deal with the point he is making?

Well, it will, but not for a Treasury Minister. As the hon. Gentleman will know, every Department comes along and says, “If only you gave me more money, you’d save so much later. No one would go to prison and you’d be saving money all round.” Understandably, the Treasury is a little sceptical. On that basis, we would for ever simply throw more money at the education system, because if we only provided the right start in life, we would have greater economic success and more highly skilled industries, and would live in nirvana.

The greatest thing I can say about the previous Government’s education policy is about how much they spent on education. The fruits are slow to emerge, but that is not to say that there are not benefits to be had if those resources are used well. Given the constraints we are under and the overspending by Government today, let alone five years ago, we are going to have to find the money for early-years provision from re-engineering our education budget. That could be said to be the more mature debate. It is always easy to say, “Oh no, we should just find the additional money.” The truth is that that will be very difficult.

On status, the Committee said in our report that the message that early-years teachers will not be equal to teachers in schools is “strong and unjust”. On pay, we said that it is not enough simply to set out a vision of equality with other teachers: if we accept the premise that the early years are a peculiarly critical time in a child’s development, Ministers need to set out—and this is the key point, whether it is done through finding more money or re-engineering the budget—

“a course of action…to a position where equal pay attracts equal quality”

of applicants. That is the key. We cannot have Government setting out an aim of an integrated work force, with that equality as a premise, and then failing to put in place any of the building blocks to take us there. At the moment, it seems to be all aspiration, with very little evidence of a closing of the gap. Even if it were to take 10 or 15 years, we would at least have a vision of how we were going to create a genuinely integrated work force, in which early-years teachers were given pay and status equal to that of teachers elsewhere in the education system.

At present, figures from the Pre-school Learning Alliance reveal that pre-school staff earn, on average, £17,000 a year, which is only around half as much as primary school staff, who earn an average of £33,000. The former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk, confirmed that England has the biggest gap in salaries between those who work in nurseries and those who work in schools of any country in western Europe. As all members of the Select Committee here today, and others, know, the key issue in raising educational quality for anyone, at any time, is the quality of the teacher. That is what counts. If we pay people half the rate of what is paid to those working with children who are just a little bit older, is it any wonder that we struggle to bring in the innovators, pioneers and greatest communicators? We need to set out a plan—it would be good to hear the Opposition’s funded plan from their Front-Bench spokesperson—to bring about that outcome.

It can be no surprise that there is a continuing disparity of status between early-years and school-based teaching. The impact of that lower status is felt beyond the issue of attracting high-quality recruits into the nursery sector. Naomi Eisenstadt told us that the perceived low status of children’s centre staff can create a barrier to successful multi-agency working, adding that

“if you do not have status within the community and you ring the health agency, they are not going to ring you back.”

Delivering equal pay for early-years teachers would of course require the extra resources I have talked about.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard me refer earlier to the nurseries at the North Tees and Hartlepool hospitals, which are scheduled to close. He has talked about staff. The Ofsted report on the nurseries says:

“All staff attend a wide range of training to develop their knowledge and skills”,

so there is ongoing professional development in that hospital nursery setting. Does he agree that that model should be rolled out elsewhere? Does he also share my opinion that those making the decisions on those nurseries might have benefited from the scrutiny and clinical examination that he would have given them had their decision come before our Committee?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I do not know all the details surrounding that case, so I will not rush to judgment on those who made that decision, but he makes powerful points, which I hope will be heard clearly by those responsible for those centres, as they consider what they will do about them in the future.

The issue is that we either find additional money or rebalance the existing budget. Speaking for myself, that gives us yet another demonstration of why it was a poor use of over £1 billion of taxpayers’ money to offer free school meals to the children of middle-class parents who can already afford them, rather than deploying that funding in the classroom, where it could have been used to attract and retain the quality teachers who we know make such a difference to children’s attainment.

In conclusion, the Government have more to do, to ensure the survival of maintained nursery schools, to encourage the development of the network of nursery schools with children’s centres around the country and to set out a strategy to realise their proper aspiration for an integrated nought-to-18 work force.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) on calling this important debate on an issue that I know she has long campaigned about. I will adopt her spirit and approach the debate in a non-partisan fashion. The two speeches we have heard have shown that that spirit is being maintained.

I also welcome the Minister to the Front Bench. We have had an exchange of sorts in the main Chamber, but this is our first opportunity to debate some of the issues here in Westminster Hall. I see from the profile of him in The Independent today that he and I have two things in common: first, like me, he has a passion for early-years education and the impact it can have on the life chances of children; secondly, like me, he attended Somerville college. I was in the last all-women year there, so I know that he is younger than me: he must have come in the vanguard of men who subsequently followed. On that point, I was slightly horrified to see the all-male Somerville team on this year’s “University Challenge”, but I digress.

I forgot to welcome the Minister to his place, which was very rude of me. It is a delight to see him in his position, bringing his youthful enthusiasm to the early-years sector and the challenges it brings.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and yes, the Minister obviously is very youthful—more so than me, clearly.

This debate on nursery schools is important because they have become the poor cousin in the sector. They fall between two stools: they are not considered to be schools in many legislative frameworks, nor are they like other nursery providers in the sector, as others have said. The Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), had a mission and a drive to expand provision of nurseries in the school setting, something which I shared with her. However, she did not have the same zeal for nursery schools. That was a missed opportunity. I hope the Minister, as her successor, will rectify that position. I will come on to some of the things that could be done in that regard.

On the wider debate about early-years provision, the Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), is absolutely right to say that high-quality, skilled, graduate-led settings are the very best that we can offer, especially for the children, in my community and many of the communities represented here today, who do not have the best start in life because they do not have the advantages—the home learning, the communication and the security at home—that many of the most advantaged children do. As policy makers, we have a responsibility to get that right.

More specifically, nursery schools are consistently the highest-graded part of the early years system, as has been said. Some 96% are graded “good” or “outstanding”, many of them in some of our most deprived communities, including my constituency. That compares with 64% of childminders and 76% of other child care providers in our community. They are the crème de la crème of the system in early years in many of our most deprived communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham said, where they exist they act as a hub of leadership across the whole provision in their area. They have a unique role in doing so. The evidence is incredibly strong that nursery schools are the beacon for the highest quality provision in the early years.

I will comment on some of the challenges that maintained nursery schools face and how we might begin to address some of them. The challenges and threats are specific, for a number of reasons. As has been said, the single funding formula was intended to create a level playing field. However, for a number of reasons nursery schools have fallen foul of the funding system. First, nursery schools have higher overheads compared with the private, voluntary and independent sector because they are required to employ qualified teachers. They also have higher costs because they are required to have specialist head teachers—something that their equivalents in the PVI sector do not have. We have already heard about the additional value that that brings to the education provided in them. For that reason, many local authorities provide nursery schools with a much higher hourly rate than some of their competitors, but that is significantly under threat, given the cuts that are coming to local authority budgets.

Yet this is an issue not just of funding, but of status in the system. Because nursery schools are seen neither as schools nor as nurseries, they cannot enjoy some of the freedoms and powers that schools enjoy. Nursery schools are not eligible for things such as the pupil premium. The Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, asked how we could rebalance the system. I would strongly welcome the extension of the pupil premium to the early years. There is significant scope to add more value by drawing down the pupil premium earlier. However, as nursery schools cannot qualify for that money, which does not come on stream until next year in any case, they are unable to take hold of this opportunity and lead the debate on how the pupil premium can be best used in the early years. The pupil premium has huge scope for providing the kind of early intervention that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham described.

Another anomaly is that nursery schools are unable to become academies. Nursery schools are unable to take that opportunity while we are in this dog-eat-dog world in the education sector, where all schools are trying to come together or achieve the freedoms of academy status, therefore leaving behind a smaller and smaller cohort of maintained schools and a smaller and smaller role for local authorities.

I am glad the hon. Lady has raised the issue of allowing nursery schools to become academies. I took a delegation of heads of nursery schools to see the Department some months ago and pressed that exact case. I hope we may hear the Minister’s thoughts on that subject. There is an opportunity to unleash places such as Pen Green and others through academy status and allow them to innovate and further expand what they do in future.

I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman took such a delegation to see Ministers. I hope some of that is taken forward. I passionately believe that we cannot do early years on the cheap. This will require some tough decisions on how slim resources will be spent, but will allow some of the best examples of early years education in this country to have not only the extra resources that are coming into the system, but the freedoms to give them the security and allow them to have the sort of innovative, creative and leadership role that the Oxclose cluster or Martenscroft nursery school in my constituency provide in some of our most deprived areas.

In conclusion, I reiterate the points that have already been made. My party has to accept its responsibility for ignoring the potential of nursery schools during our time in office. Nursery schools provide some of the best education and provide for some of our most vulnerable children, not just those who are deprived, but those with disabilities, special educational needs and those who would elsewhere be turned down by private providers, which do not have to accept them. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham recently published a fantastic report on child care for disabled children, which is a long-forgotten issue in this area. Parents with disabled children face barriers up to 10 times greater than those without disabled children.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend raised the issue of children with special needs. Claire Guffick and Russ Andrews’s 16-month-old son Dylan attends the North Tees nursery that I spoke about earlier. He has a severe form of atopic dermatitis—a form of eczema. He is registered disabled because of the high level of care he needs. His mother said:

“We visited a number of nurseries but North Tees was the only nursery able to cater to his health condition and also cater towards his restricted diet.”

That is all the more reason why that nursery should be saved: it caters for the very special needs of very special children.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. He and I both attended the launch of the report by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, which examines how we can better look at meeting the child care costs of parents with disabled children. We heard some profound examples of just the sort of situations that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) describes. Nursery schools are often the only option that many parents have. I would gladly join the Minister in making progress on the issue.

If the Minister has not done so already, I urge him to read the final report of the Education Committee on some of the issues we have been debating. There are good recommendations in it, and perhaps he will use today’s opportunity to update us on how he is advancing those. Does he agree with me about enabling nursery schools to hold the pupil premium for the early years? Will he consider the question of allowing nursery schools some of the freedom that other schools have to take on academy status?

I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) on securing today’s debate. She has a long and commendable track record in education and the welfare of young children, within and outside the House, and I thank her for obtaining the debate. I thank the Select Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who made his case with characteristic forcefulness, and the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), for her arguments. I did not realise that we shared an alma mater. I notice that she is wearing the colours of Somerville college, red and black, today. However, I guess we share something even more important, in that we are both parents. When it comes to early years, we have the same objective as most parents—wanting the best start in life for our children. There is no greater responsibility or privilege.

The hon. Member for North West Durham made a point about listening, and in the spirit of willingness to listen, I will mention that the Department is planning a series of visits. We will make sure that Pen Green nursery school in Corby is on that list, and I shall go sooner rather than later. I thank her for that recommendation.

We can all agree on the importance of early education. The research about effective pre-school, primary and secondary education published by the Department for Education today shows that the effects of pre-school last to the age of 16, so it is vital to ensure that children get a good pre-school start. In that context, maintained nurseries are delivering. As we have heard several times in the debate, they are often doing that in disadvantaged areas, where such high-quality provision can make the greatest difference. I fully support those schools where they are delivering high-quality, sustainable provision responsive to parents’ needs. One example of that is Beechdale nursery school in the constituency of the hon. Member for North West Durham, with outstanding provision and additional child care beyond the free entitlement. Another is the maintained nursery schools that are part of the Bristol early-years teaching consortium, where designated teaching schools link with local primary schools and private-sector providers to share their best practice. I look forward to the continued success of those fantastic maintained nursery schools, and more like them, in the years to come.

We should always bear three things in mind in considering child care and early education. We need it to be accessible, affordable for parents and of high quality. There has been some discussion of priorities, and with that triangle the equation is not always as straightforward as it can seem. With child care, one size does not fit all. Parents are obviously concerned about their children’s learning and development, but often they also want somewhere for them to be looked after while they are at work, or when they need a break. Parents look for various solutions when they look at the child care marketplace.

Maintained nursery schools make up a very small part of early education in this country. As we have heard, there are now 414, compared with nearly 7,000 primary schools with nursery classes—6,843, to be precise—and almost 18,000 private or voluntary day nurseries and pre-schools delivering early education. We have a mixed economy for child care and early education. To respond to what the Select Committee Chair said, that should be evidence enough that the Department is not pursuing coherence at the expense of equity. We do not actually have a coherent sector at all; we have a mixed economy, with different types of provision.

I congratulate the Minister on his new role. I do not want to be boring about the North Tees and Hartlepool hospitals nursery closures, but they are part of the mixed economy the Minister has talked about. Can he suggest any intervention he could make? Could his officials speak to the hospitals about advice or other help that the Government could provide that would save the specialist provision of those nurseries for disabled and other special needs children? That would enable parents to set their anxieties aside.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman write to me, and I will then respond accordingly and get my officials to look into the matter.

I am conscious of the time, so I shall race quickly through my remaining points. Closures have been mentioned several times. The small number of closures that have happened are not necessarily a sign of a long-term trend or a decline in the number of maintained nursery schools. Some have merged or federated with neighbouring schools, so some of the reduction in the overall numbers from 468 10 years ago to 414 now is down to sensible restructuring based on assessment of local need. Despite that reduction, I can reassure all hon. Members that the number of pupils attending maintained nursery schools has increased over the same period, from 39,000 in 2004 to 40,000 in 2014. The hon. Member for North West Durham would describe that as static, but it is a modest increase, and it does not seem at all like a decline to me.

There is as much protection for maintained nursery schools as there is for any other school, if not more. Local authorities cannot close maintained nursery schools without following due process. In fact the current school organisation guidance, published in January 2014, states clearly that

“there is a presumption against the closure of nursery schools”.

That does not mean that a nursery school will never close. Indeed, it cannot be right to guarantee that maintained nursery schools will stay open at all costs, without ensuring that they provide sustainable, high-quality provision that meets the needs of local parents and children. Nevertheless, the case for closure should be strong. The guidance requires that

“any proposal to close should demonstrate that: plans to develop alternative provision clearly demonstrate that it will be at least as equal in terms of the quantity as the provision provided by the nursery school with no loss of expertise and specialism; and replacement provision is more accessible and more convenient for local parents”.

The Minister’s predecessor made it clear that her preferred route was for nurseries to open in schools, at the expense of stand-alone nursery schools in the maintained sector. Will the Minister clarify his position?

As I said early in my speech, parents and their needs are the starting point. No one size fits all for early education and child care. We should accept that we have diverse provision and we should support those different forms of provision and ensure that, whether parents choose a childminder, a maintained nursery school or a private, voluntary or independent setting, they get the quality they expect. That has some relevance to priorities, which the hon. Member for North West Durham mentioned. There was a suggestion that somehow the Government’s priorities were biased against maintained nursery schools. In a time of austerity, we need a targeted and effective approach to the early years.

The Minister is saying that we need a targeted approach, so will he commit to looking again at the report from the Education Committee and its recommendations for placing nursery schools at the centre of a network? Given the quality of the provisions, it seems sensible that they should sit at the centre of a network providing support and good practice for other provisions. He should commit to the Committee’s recommendations.

I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. I am very aware of the Education Committee’s recommendations and I will come to some of the points in a moment. As the hon. Lady rightly said, we should not just look at what other countries do, but remember to praise the good practice in this country. There is great practice and some excellent and visionary practitioners in this country. There is a lot to be proud of.

We have universal provision for three and four-year-olds in this country so every three and four-year-old is entitled to 15 hours of child care. That is a tremendous achievement. The latest “Education at a Glance” report from PISA—the programme for international student assessment—puts us in the top 10 of OECD countries, which we can be proud of. More than 90% of three and four-year-olds in this country receive 15 hours of free child care at the moment.

On targeting, the Government have introduced the free early-years entitlement for two-year-olds, which will benefit 260,000 two-year-olds from the least advantaged families in the country who will receive 15 hours of care a week. We should be proud of that, but we must be targeted in how we use finite resources.

We have also introduced the early-years pupil premium, which is £300 a year for three and four-year-olds. I assure hon. Members that maintained nursery schools will receive the early-years pupil premium from 2015 and I hope that private voluntary independent organisations and maintained nurseries will use that to help to boost their ability to attract higher-quality staff for children in nurseries.

There is a lot to be proud of, and the Government have a plan and clear priorities for the early years. However, funding for maintained nursery schools is obviously an issue, and we fund that provision through local authorities to enable them best to make decisions for parents and children. Some 49 local authorities do not have any maintained nursery schools and 43 have only one or two. Therefore, a funded approach that treats maintained nursery schools differently would not be fair to those areas. Many areas of high deprivation have good inspection results in early-years foundation stage profile outcomes. Some make use of maintained nursery schools as part of local provision, but others are doing that with high-quality nursery classes in primary schools and private providers, not large numbers of maintained nursery schools.

Maintained nursery schools play an important role in many areas, but our approach, including that to funding, must ensure that parents retain a choice of early education provision that meets their needs and, whatever their choice, that they can be assured of high-quality provision. Maintained nursery schools are more costly than other providers, but it is for local authorities to determine funding levels. There are often good reasons for higher funding levels and many local authorities have chosen to retain them with their single funding formula, indicating that most deliver excellent value for money, but they are not the only solution.

Many primary school nurseries and private and voluntary providers offer high-quality, affordable early-years provision that is good value for money, and that provision must also be funded fairly. We must ensure the highest-quality provision across the board and our policy approach and funding decisions should reflect that.

In their response to the Select Committee’s report, the Government noted the engagement in teaching school alliances of nursery schools and said that it was collecting and sharing best practice. Can the Minister add anything now or write to me about that and whether he thinks that involvement through teaching school alliances could help by sharing that expertise with others and whether funding could be provided to allow continuation of the high-quality services we get from nursery schools?

My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee makes an excellent point, and I will write to him on that specifically. He alludes to quality and we know that a large proportion of maintained nurseries deliver outstanding provision, and in areas where maintained nursery schools rightly remain part of the answer, we want local authorities to work with them to ensure they spread their expertise. We are seeing that already. Nineteen maintained nursery schools are designated teaching schools and a further 109 are members of a teaching school alliance. I will write to the Chairman of the Select Committee with the details of how that is working. In Bristol, for example, where maintained nursery schools are linked to local primary schools and private sector providers in a teaching school alliance, they can share and disseminate best practice. That is an important way to guarantee the continued success of our best, high-quality maintained nursery schools.

Qualified teaching status and early-years teachers were mentioned by the hon. Member for North West Durham. I believe, as do all hon. Members here, that there is a need to raise the status and quality of the professionals in the early-years sector. We cannot say that early years are critical to a child’s development and not do everything we can to attract the best people into the sector. There are several ways of doing that. For example, one of my first decisions as Minister was to look at the early-years educator level 3 qualification. On literacy and numeracy, staff who qualify for level 3 must have GCSE level A to C in maths and English. We phased that in for the first year and it will be on exit, but after 2015, they will have to have that on entry to start a level 3 early educator course and to qualify.

A broader issue is attracting graduates to early-years education. QTS is one way to do so, but not the only one. We cannot set pay expectations for all early-years providers. The private voluntary independent sector is significant in the early-years sector, so we must think of ways of attracting the best graduates into the sector.

I do not know whether the Minister has met some of this year’s cohort on the course, but many have come to me to complain that they were misled about the course because they thought that they would have the same pay and status as if they had done the other available course for full qualified teaching status. I appreciate the impact on the sector of looking at these issues, but we must be mindful of attracting people to the courses. People have the choice of becoming fully qualified teachers, early-years qualified teachers or to qualify as a new early-years graduate. They will vote with their feet and choose where they think they can get the best paid job because they all come from the same place. The Minister must think about that.

The shadow Minister makes an excellent point. If people believe they were misled about a course, the first solution is to ensure that the details are communicated clearly to people when they sign up. On the broader issue of discrepancy in pay, we must look at that as it applies to the whole early-years sector, not just between primary school teachers and early-years teachers. The problem can be addressed in several ways. However, there is a more fundamental point. I was speaking to Andreas Schleicher, who presented to the Department on the PISA rankings yesterday, and raising quality is not just a question of increasing the salary; we need to ensure that we have the right sort of career progression. If we look at other countries where teachers are very motivated and excited, they have career progression built into the system as well. It is a knotty issue to get around, but it is in my in-tray and I am looking at it.

The central ask is that having set out the aspirations so clearly, the Government need to come forward with a strategy. The Minister said that what we are discussing can be done in a number of ways and that there are knotty issues, but they need to set out a strategy for how the proposals can be implemented. At least, we can then discuss it. Will he commit to producing a strategy to bring about the true integrated nought-to-18, or nought-to-19, work force the Government say they want?

I thank my hon. Friend for another forceful point. As I said, it is in my in-tray. It is something that I am looking at, and at the appropriate moment, I will let him know what my thoughts are.

Ofsted assessments were also raised, I think, by the hon. Member for North West Durham. I assure her that from September 2014, Ofsted will give primary schools a separate assessment for their early-years provision.

Ofsted will give a separate assessment for early years, but the Minister will no doubt be aware that that early-years assessment will include nursery classes, reception and year 1 and the foundation stage, and therefore will still not be a direct comparison against the nursery school, which is purely nursery years, prior to reception.

There are different Ofsted inspections, depending on the type of organisation, but one thing that is not in doubt is the quality of the provision of maintained nursery schools. That is not in doubt at all.

In summary, I think that we all agree that maintained nursery schools provide excellent provision. They do a tremendous job in meeting local needs, especially in deprived areas. In a mixed economy, with maintained nursery schools, private and voluntary providers, and nursery schools in primary schools, they have a role to play. They have greater protection than other sorts of providers, and because there is a presumption against closure, the local authority has to think long and hard before embarking on closure. I shall bring my comments to an end by saying that, yes, we value them, but the starting point for this—whether we are looking at provision, quality or funding—should be parents, and when it comes to parents, there is no one size fits all. We should therefore support diversity of provision in the sector.

Sitting suspended.