Letter: Labour, child care and education

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From Ms Margaret Hodge, MP

Sir: You criticise Labour's description of the Government nursery voucher scheme as a "con" and you say Labour has no new ideas on education (leading article, 8 July.) You are mistaken on both counts.

The nursery voucher scheme was advertised as a way of extending choice to parents and expanding provision to all four-year-olds. However, no action is to be taken to provide capital for nursery expansion and no action to train more nursery teachers or restore the cuts in training for those already working with the under-fives.

According to figures provided to me by the education minister, Eric Forth, in May, over nine out of 10 four-year-olds are in some pre-school provision. Of 645,000 four-year-olds, 498,000 are in maintained schools (most in reception classes), 120,000 in the private and voluntary sector and 27,000 do not have a place. This scheme will only provide places for that latter group - assuming their parents want it.

However, fewer than half our three-year-olds have a place in a nursery setting. To fund the voucher scheme, the Government appears to want to remove from local authorities the grant they currently receive towards nursery education for three-year-olds. So the new scheme could well worsen opportunities for this group.

To applaud a new policy simply on the grounds that it is a new idea is silly. This proposal is steeped in outdated dogma at the expense of developing something that works. What happens to our young children in their early years is of vital importance in determining their attainment levels later.

Labour is developing practical proposals to set targets so that both three and four-year-olds have access to high quality nursery education. We are also responding to changing patterns of work and the changing needs of parents - by the end of the decade 70 per cent of women with children under five will be at work. We want to develop a comprehensive, quality service which brings together and integrates child care and education. We will work in partnership with local authorities and bodies like the Pre-School Learning Alliance in that task. That's a good idea which works, not a gimmick which takes us no further forward.

Your criticism of the absence of new thinking on education generally is absurd. David Blunkett has outlined new ideas for the assessment of children when they start at primary school, for ensuring better leadership by headteachers, for value-added performance measures and for ways of developing life-long learning.

Yours sincerely,

Margaret Hodge

MP for Barking (Lab)

House of Commons

London, SW1

9 July