Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 25 January 2000


Financial Assistance for Political Parties Bill

Pre-School Nursery Provision

The sitting begun and suspended on Monday 24 January 2000 was resumed at 2.00 pm.

Financial Assistance for Political Parties Bill

Consideration Stage

Motion made

That Clauses 1 to 4 stand part of the Bill. — [Mr Fee]

Mr Molloy:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I, as Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee, ask whether it is the case that at the Consideration Stage there is no provision for Members to debate issues dealt with in the legislation other than by way of amendments moved in the House or suggested by the Committee? Having considered this Bill and heard views on various aspects of it, we decided not to recommend any amendments.

It would facilitate debate if you, Mr Speaker, were to give the House some guidance on the procedure for amendments.

Mr Speaker:

The Member makes a helpful point. It is true that a Committee’s report on a Bill does not itself trigger a debate at Consideration Stage, but an amendment suggested by the Committee or moved on Consideration does provide such an opportunity.

Thus Committee Chairmen may table amendments with no intention of pressing them to a decision but simply to elicit a response. Probing amendments are frequently moved and then withdrawn.

Appreciating that the Finance and Personnel Committee, and other Members, may not be familiar with these matters, I have requested that this advice be circulated to all Committee Clerks, who can remind their Chairmen of a course that they might take.

Question put and agreed to.

Clauses 1 to 4 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker:

The Bill now proceeds to the Final Stage.

As the Adjournment debate is not scheduled to begin until 3.00 pm, the sitting will be suspended until then.

The sitting was suspended at 2.04 pm.

On resuming —

Motion made

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Speaker]


Pre-School Nursery Provision


3.00 pm

Mr Poots:

I wish to talk about pre-school education, which is vital to many since almost 100,000 children are under the age of four.

Education begins in the home, and in a child’s early days he or she has a keen ability to absorb material, to learn and to become educated. It has been proved in scientific tests that children whose parents stay at home do better in later years. It is believed that children whose parents stayed at home during their early years can do 10% better in their O-level and A-level examinations. However, many people now go out to work, and a significant number of them are single parents.

In Northern Ireland there are 310,000 women in the workplace, of whom 155,000 have children. The number of women working is expected to increase by 24,000 by 2006. Fifty-six per cent of children under four have mothers who work. There is also a large number of single parents, many of whom are also out working, so their children do not have even one parent at home on a regular basis.

Pre-school education should not be regarded by parents merely as a child minding provision; it should be for the benefit of the children themselves. Pre-school education helps children to develop their social skills and interact with others. It provides them with an early opportunity to mix with others in their peer group. Children who have not had the opportunity to mix with other children often have social problems and problems with mixing. Parents can have severe problems when there is only one child in the family, but when that child starts school he can be much easier to handle and control. If children mix with their peers at an early age, they gain important social skills.

Structured play is very educational, and we should be reviewing the age at which children start their education. In Scandinavian countries children do not start school until they are six or seven. This is a big and emotive issue. I do not have any hard or fast opinions on it, but it is thought that by the time those children are 10 or 11 they are more advanced educationally than the ones who start school at four or five. We need to look at the age at which children should start school and at whether it is beneficial for it to be four or five rather than to have nursery education for a longer period ,during which there is provision for structured play.

We must also look at the current conditions in pre-school playgroups. Many of these groups that give a great service to the community operate in facilities which are not good enough. Many of them work in church halls, parochial halls or Orange halls, and they were not built with children in mind. They do not have proper facilities or heating systems, and, with the best will in the world, they never will have.

However, they have been there for the pre-school playgroups, who provide this vital service, but it would be better if we could provide nursery education for the children.

We also have to consider the qualifications of those who are working with them. Many playgroup staff do not have proper qualifications. Only half the staff in a group must have the necessary qualifications. Obviously everyone should be adequately qualified. That would be to the children’s benefit.

The United Kingdom has the ninth-lowest number of children in playgroups in the European Union. In Northern Ireland last year we had, pro rata, half the number of nursery places available in England. That is how, up to last year, we compared with France, Belgium and Denmark.

The Government recognised the need for nursery places as far back as 1977 when Lord Melchett, under the then Labour Administration, sought for us parity with the rest of the United Kingdom, and 22 years later the issue is still not being adequately addressed.

Mr Weir:

Is the hon Member aware that Lord Melchett also gave a pledge to provide one year’s nursery education for the children of every parent who wanted it? That pledge too is still unfulfilled, in spite of the passage of more than 20 years.

Mr Poots:

I understand that Lord Melchett was concerned at the low level of pre-school provision and announced the setting-up of an interdepartmental group to examine the matter. By 1999 his plans had obviously not come to fruition. However, by 1994 we had moved on from the days of Lord Melchett, and a policy of early-years provision for Northern Ireland was introduced. At that time the aim of the policy was to provide one year’s nursery education for all those under compulsory school age whose parents wanted them to have it.

There were serious difficulties with making progress on that under the Conservative Administration. We were promised a pre-school voucher scheme in Northern Ireland, but it was withdrawn at the last minute by the then Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew. It would not have been ideal anyway, and it was not going to be particularly beneficial to Northern Ireland. However, under the Labour Government, we have seen substantial improvement. While I do not agree with most things that the Labour Government have done, including the introduction of tuition fees for tertiary education, I do have to give them credit for improving the provision of nursery places.

By this year, it is expected, 75% of children will be in nursery places in Northern Ireland as a result of the introduction of the Children First Programme by John McFall in February 1999. John McFall announced the spending of £51 million over three years: £27·4 million for a pre-school expansion programme; £10 million for the new-opportunities fund for out-of-school childcare projects; £9 million for the Training and Employment Agency; and £5 million for the childhood fund. The new Minister of Education recently announced a spending sum of £38 million, but we need some clarification on how much of this was the money that John McFall had already announced in February 1999.

We also need to look at the 25% of children who do not get places, and I raised this matter yesterday with the Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon. The Robson indices can lead to discrimination against areas where deprivation is not recognised on a ward-to-ward basis and where pockets of deprivation are not recognised.

Tonagh Primary School, in my constituency of Lagan Valley, sought a nursery unit. Some 34% of the children at that school receive free school meals. Its single-parent families are believed to be of the order of 30%, and unemployment is at about 25%. A case was made to the South Eastern Education and Library Board. In the first year the primary school was told that only a 52-place unit was available and that as Tonagh required just a 26-place unit, it would not be granted one. Apparently 52 places were available in the Tonagh area, but in the maintained sector. Tonagh primary school is in the controlled sector, and the parents did not want to send their children to the maintained-sector school.

Parents who want to send their children to the maintained sector cannot do so because on the ward-by-ward basis, the places are not available. This means that the 52 places that are available in the area are being filled not only by people in the area but by people outside it. This issue must be examined.

We must also examine the role of the Pre-school Education Advisory Group (PEAG) and its accountability in issues such as this. Until last year, people on the South Eastern Education and Library Board were told officially that the group was not accountable to them. They were informed recently that the minutes are available for ratification and not just there to be noted. The confusion over the role of the PEAG and to whom it is accountable must be cleared up.

The lower provision of nursery places in rural areas must also be looked at. A substantial number of places is available for children in reception classes in small country schools, but nursery places are not available. Apparently it is Government policy to discontinue reception classes, so what is to be done for the children in rural areas?

Under the INTERREG scheme six areas were allowed to have special access arrangements for children in rural areas on a trial basis. What was the outcome of that? If the trial was successful, will it be made available to other areas? Obviously, the problems that prevail in the hills of Dromara are much the same as those in the border areas where this INTERREG scheme was introduced, and the ability of parents to take children to nursery schools is much the same.

Some questions need to be answered on plans for the year 2000-01, when, it is claimed , 75% of nursery places will be available. Will the schools that have the opportunity to provide nursery places be able to fulfil their obligations and have those places ready, particularly in areas where capital projects have to be undertaken? Will there be enough trained staff? What are the proposals for the 25% of children for whom pre-school nursery places will not be available?

It must be remembered that under targeting social needs, many people have been left out. In my area there are people who cannot afford to pay for private nursery provision, yet they do not live in large, deprived estates. There has been a tendency to direct money towards the large estates, and that is detrimental to other areas.

A family in which both parents work may have approximately £1,600 per month after tax. These people could be described as being well off.

However, when their mortgage is paid they are left with £1,200. Taking into account the costs associated with running a car, that figure reduces to £800. Once they have paid their rates and telephone and electricity bills they are left with £650. When they pay £450 for food and clothing they are left with £200 per month. That is the amount of money those people are left with in a month. Are they then supposed to pay for nursery education and leave nothing for themselves? That sort of situation must be addressed. We need to see a fulfilment of the policy proposed in 1994 that pre-school nursery places be available to all who wish to take them.

3.15 pm

Mr Benson:

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this important subject. Nursery education for all four-year-olds is not a luxury but a necessity. The Labour Government have made it a target, and I am sure that the parties here today unanimously support the objective of nursery education for all. Educationalists and parents vouch for the benefits of a preparatory pre-school year. That is the year during which children begin to practise the important habits of relating to their peers, listening with attention and gaining a measure of independence.

The Government have gone some way towards honouring their election promise with an injection of capital to provide more nursery-school places. However, many parents face disappointment when trying to enrol their children for full-time places, and nursery schools are forced by this shortage to create artificial and sometimes unfair criteria which rule out the hard-working, tax-paying families who are the backbone of society.

The Labour Government’s idea that nursery-school places must be reserved for children from so-called socially deprived backgrounds is discriminatory. Surely, in this day of equality, the children of parents who work must have the same opportunity to get nursery-school places as everyone else. The Government’s new guidelines force the governors of nursery schools to favour children as young as two years and three months from socially deprived backgrounds, children who may still be in nappies, rather than the four-year olds who would benefit from pre-school education.

Do the Government want to turn our specialist nursery schools into glorified day-care centres? This policy is obviously a sop for those on the left of the Labour Party, and its implications cannot have been properly considered. Why do they not ask the opinions of principals and teachers and listen to the voices of experience and good sense? There is no fair answer to the question of apportioning a limited number of places. The Government must make nursery-school education a statutory provision for all four-year-olds.

All primary schools with a roll of at least 200 pupils and with an annual intake of at least 28 should be given a nursery unit within, or attached to, the school, according to need. Each unit should be capable of providing full-time places for all children. At the moment, most children are only present for two and a half hours each day, and that does not allow a mother to take up a part-time job. So much for the Labour Party’s commitment to encouraging mothers back into employment.

Completion of the long-term goal of free full-time nursery education for all four-year-olds will involve considerable expense. All new schools or schools being refurbished will have to have a nursery department provided. There will also be a need for new purpose-built nursery units in existing primary schools. In the short term we can make savings and take practical steps towards achieving our goals. A number of existing schools, which have stabilised their rolls at less than full capacity, have spare classroom accommodation, which could easily be adapted for nursery provision.

I was glad to see recently in the press that the Minister has pledged £38 million to fund early-years education. Is this new money? If so, I take it to be the first step towards achieving our goal of full-time nursery education for all four-year-olds.

Ms Lewsley:

I welcome the Minister’s decision to expand the pre-school education programme to cover three out of every four children. But what happens to the one in four who will not be covered? Every child should have the right to pre-school education if his parents wish him to have it.

Mr Benson talked about the entry criteria that are laid down at nursery level. The practice at present is that parents who are on benefits get priority over working parents. This raises two issues. First, parents on benefits feel that they are being stigmatised in some way, and at the same time it is implied that their children are less intelligent than those whose parents are working.

The second issue is that of discrimination against single parents who work part-time and claim family credit, which still exists as a benefit, or, in the future, the working tax credit, let alone the discrimination against single parents who are working.

Serious thought needs to be given to the implementation of this programme. There is concern in the voluntary and independent sector that some providers who have striven to maintain a high-quality pre-school service will be displaced by capital investment in the statutory sector. This would create a two-tier system within the pre-school expansion programme. The Minister has stated that the voluntary sector can apply for capital funding and that more than half the places secured will be in the voluntary sector, but one of his advisers has told me that many of these groups are within the trust, board and private sectors.

The funding of renovations, new buildings and extensions in the statutory sector by the Department of Education raises the possibility of the displacement of smaller groups which are accredited by the Northern Ireland Pre-school Playgroup Association (NIPPA) — for instance, the Broughshane and district pre-school group, which has provided an excellent service to the community for 26 years. The Gracehill and Galgorm pre-school group also stands to be displaced by statutory nurseries. These are cross-community groups which have provided excellent services for some time.

Furthermore, I am concerned that if nursery or pre-school groups are mainly situated within primary schools, they will be identified with the particular community served by each school and lose their cross-community aspect.

It is important to consider funding the specialist support that NIPPA provides in the same way that the Curriculum Advice Support Service is funded for the statutory sector. The pre-school expansion programme has had a dramatic impact on NIPPA staff, and this has had a negative effect as NIPPA advisers no longer have time to meet the needs of their members who are not within the PEAG. NIPPA advisers were previously able to provide a comprehensive service to their members, but the five hours early-years specialist requirement services to other members has now had to be restricted.

The impact of the programme is particularly evident in rural areas where NIPPA advisers, some of whom work only part-time, have been put under pressure by an increasing workload. In some cases, a single adviser is responsible for up to 30 groups within the pre-school expansion programme. There is a danger that as well as having a two-tier system for the statutory and voluntary sectors, there will be a two-tier system for rural and urban areas. I call for an interim review to consider pre-school provision in rural areas. NIPPA will not be able to continue without funding. It has identified a need for an additional five early-years specialists to relieve the pressure, one in each of the education and library board areas.

While, as I have said, I welcome the increase in the number of places in pre-school education and appreciate the recognition of its value, I respectfully ask the Minister to consider carefully the role of voluntary groups in this field and to ensure that the pre-school expansion programme is inclusive and not exclusive.

Ms Ramsey:

Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the fact that one of the first Adjournment debates of the new millennium is focusing on children and children’s issues. Like Ms Lewsley, I give a guarded welcome to the Minister’s announcement last week of £38 million for the pre-school education expansion programme. This programme is designed to ensure that three out of every four children under the age of five will have a place in pre-school education if their parents so wish.

The reason that I give this guarded welcome to the announcement is that I believe that all children should have a place in pre-school education as of right. The funding also sends out a clear message to all, whether in the voluntary, community or statutory sectors that pre-school education is the way forward. There is much research and documentation to show that these programmes are a valuable stepping stone to the formal education system. One of the reasons for this is the flexibility of the pre-school system, which enables children to learn through the medium of play at a time when a child is more open to learning.

Pre-school education also responds to the needs of the community, and particularly to those with special needs or from disadvantaged areas. It has been shown that children who have had pre-school education are better prepared for school life and less likely to develop emotional or behavioural problems later on, which also has a knock-on effect.

Pre-school education also helps mothers who want to return to work or to the education system, and problems with this were mentioned earlier. The integrated approach of some groups, offering crèche and day-care facilities and, in some cases, after-school provision, plays an important part in this.

One of the problems associated with pre-school education in the community sector is the uncertainty of long-term funding. For a long time the North has had the worst record in western Europe for childcare provision and pre-school education, and such money can be a first step towards addressing this need.

Sinn Féin supports the funding of pre-school education, which targets areas of social need and ensures that children in the most disadvantaged areas can benefit from a positive start in life. The 1998 SACHR report recommended that there should be free nursery education for all three-to-four-year-olds. I am glad that the Minister of Education is present. I would be interested to hear what plans he and his Department have to expand the pre-school education expansion programme further. Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs E Bell:

Like other Members, I am very glad to have this opportunity to discuss this very important part of life. Other Members have given an historical analysis and mentioned figures and problems, but I would like to make a few general remarks on the subject and underline why it must be given priority.

I too welcome the Minister’s announcement last week of £38 million for the pre-school sector. This injection of cash will mean that three out of four children will be able to enjoy schooling in a nursery-school environment. However, as others have said, we should work towards getting provision for four out of four.

The advantages of pre-school education are obvious — happy, confident and considerate children, who, it is to be hoped, will develop the good habits learnt in nursery school during the rest of their time in education and end up mature, conscientious and tolerant adults. The Alliance Party has campaigned on this subject for a long time, and I have seen at first hand the good results of pre-school experience, especially in areas of disadvantage and deprivation.

As Ms Ramsey has said, various projects here and in England have shown that if young people are introduced to schooling early, it provides them with the basis for educational training and with an introduction to social skills, such building on relationships and working together with other children in a congenial atmosphere.

3.30 pm

Literacy and numeracy are taught in an informal way at this stage. This inspires confidence in the children and gives them a basic knowledge and appreciation of their environment. They can deal with issues such as litter control in a friendly way. Play and all the other things that children do are included in the programme.

I know that, as Mr Benson said, there are problems with baseline assessment and curriculum guidance, but the children are introduced to everyday items such as pencils, pens and drawing equipment, and they are taught how to use them properly. They are even taught about furniture and the different types of chairs that are available. This type of education can be very helpful if the children do not get it at home.

Pre-school education also enhances children’s personal, social and emotional development, and when they go to primary school they are already confident about building relationships with teachers and fellow pupils. They have an idea too about discipline, as it is part of the daily programme, and they will have developed some idea of what is acceptable behaviour in class. This all helps to give a constructive foundation for life, and it should be accessible to and possible for all children. It should not be looked on as a means of supervising children while their parents are at work; rather, it should be regarded as an integral part of their development and lifelong learning.

For far too long Northern Ireland has been at the bottom of the pre-school provision league, and we must improve that situation radically. The Department of Education and the education boards must provide sufficient places in the primary-school reception classes, mothers-and-toddlers groups, voluntary groups and cross-community groups that exist. The Department should also help to set up such groups in areas where they do not exist and provide the necessary expertise to enable them to continue.

It is a child’s right, as other Members have said, to have an education system that will help him realise his potential. Pre-school education provides the best possible start, and it should be open to all children, whatever their background.

We must ensure that we have the necessary funding to enable us to implement and maintain what is required by law, to provide proper facilities, equipment and trained staff. I concur with the views expressed by Ms Lewsley about the lack of teaching staff — one could have the children and the places but not the staff. This problem must be looked at.

We must not continue to be dependent on European funding. The Minister said that pre-school education provides the foundation for later achievement. That is vital in the drive to raise educational standards. We should encourage parents to make use of the additional places available this year, and I hope that those places will also be available in future years. I hope too that the Minister will continue to support and finance this important vehicle for our children’s future.

Mr Roche:

I would like to highlight the complicated mosaic that exists in terms of provision of and access to pre-school education.

We have nursery schools, nursery units within primary schools, playgroups and day nurseries. Education and library boards fund the first two, while the other two are funded partly privately and partly by the Government.

On top of this is a complicated mosaic of access. With regard to places, first preference is given to children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds who are four years of age in the July or August of their pre-school year; second preference is given to all other socially disadvantaged children; third preference is given to all other children with July and August birthdays in their pre-school year; and, finally, all other children in their pre-school year are considered.

I stress the complicated combination of provision and access because it seems to give rise to two crucial problems. First, there is the problem of equality of access: a child of four, in his pre-school year, whose birthday is not in July or August may get no pre-school education at all.

Pre-school education is of value in providing a child with intellectual stimulus and social skills. For instance, it teaches a child how to take his coat off and hang it up, and so on. Children are taught a whole range of things that may sound trivial but are very important for preparing them for primary school and for enabling them to be intellectually and socially equipped to meet and get on with other children. If pre-school education is important, it is important that we have equality of access to it and that children are not excluded from it merely because of when their birthday happens to fall.

Secondly, as has been mentioned, this access provision now discriminates against parents who are not considered to be socially deprived. That is not acceptable.

The implication of these two considerations — that a child may be excluded because of when his birthday falls or because of the social or economic status of his parents — combined with real value of pre-school education, makes it logical for us to drive towards making pre-school education available free to all.

Another problem that arises out of the complicated mosaic of provision and access is unequal provision. We cannot argue that there is equality of provision. I make the point because of the different educational qualifications that are required for these different types of provision. For example, the nursery schools and nursery units must be staffed by qualified teachers and assistants who have the equivalent of an NVQ level 3, whereas playgroup or day-nursery assistants do not have to have any specific qualifications at all.

Now, if qualifications are important — and of course they are important — and if there is a significant difference in the qualifications required, one cannot argue that the quality of the output is the same. We need to standardise the qualifications required and we need to ensure that there is no discrimination in access to this important dimension of education.

This debate is categorised by a combination of normality and a civilised concern for the educational well-being of children. But above that façade of normality and civilised concern a dark cloud is hovering: the position of the Minister of Education. The last time I saw him interviewed on television he was openly talking — in fact, boasting — what he called his "years on the run". Now, in all the standard histories of the IRA — and there have been some very significant ones recently — those years that Mr McGuinness referred to are categorised as involving the leadership of the Provisional IRA in Londonderry.

Mr Speaker:

Order. This is very wide of the mark, given the subject of the Adjournment debate. The Member mentioned the civilised way in which the debate was being conducted. I trust that he will not find himself being the one who changes that.

Mr Roche:

I take your point, Mr Speaker.

It is important to be concerned about equality of provision because we want to ensure that we get equality of output. And here we have to consider the qualifications of those who teach. However, the situation to which I referred is a matter of extreme concern to a vast number of decent, civilised and law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland.

Ms Morrice:

In spite of some of the comments made by the last Member who spoke, all Members are agreed on this issue. I trust that the press will take note of this rarity: we are all agreed that this provision should be available to all children.

I also wish to welcome support from wherever it comes, whether from the Labour Government or from the new Minister of Education. Support is very valuable, whether new or old.

I want to acknowledge Northern Ireland’s absolutely disgraceful track record on state-aided childcare. There is no doubt that the United Kingdom lags behind the remainder of the European Union on childcare and that Northern Ireland lags behind all other regions of the United Kingdom. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Northern Ireland has had the worst pre-school provision for children.

I am the mother of an eight-year-old child, and I have been through the system. The greatest investment that we can make is in our children’s education, most particularly in those early years.

As a member of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, I recognise the value of this investment. We can speak of American investment coming in and going to industry, but until we get to grips with the value of investing in our children we will have our priorities wrong. Children’s education is most important.

It has been said that research proves that nursery education gives children not only a better start in life but a better life in general. It has also been proved that a child who has had a nursery education will face fewer criminal charges in later life. He or she will also have fewer social problems, such as teenage pregnancy, and be less welfare-dependent. Investment in the early years pays off in later life.

I agree with Mr Roche’s reference to a "complicated mosaic". I call it a plethora. The major problem is that there are so many different types of provision, from day-care centres to nursery schools and other facilities. There is a possible lack of understanding and awareness of the system and, perhaps as a result, a lack of access to existing provision. There is a need for parents to have a better understanding of how the system works — from créches to day-care centres, to playgroups, to the nursery schools and to school classrooms themselves. This might be achieved through streamlining or integration of the existing provision, as was mentioned earlier by Sue Ramsey.

With regard to the plethora, I welcome the targeting social needs (TSN) initiative which will aim to help children in the most disadvantaged areas before dealing with all children. I do not think that this has been mentioned today. Another very important point which must not be overlooked is the involvement of parents. Parents need to be taught how to teach their children. A good example of this is the greater Shankill Partnership early-years project and its home visiting scheme, which is used to teach parents how to help children to play.

3.45 pm

I remember telling European civil servants in Brussels about the situation in some areas of Northern Ireland when I was involved in the task force that set up the European special support programme for peace and reconciliation. Some children in deprived areas were attending their first day at school still in nappies. I do not know how surprising that is to Members. However, the explanation was that their mothers were working and their fathers unemployed and the fathers had not got to grips with the nappy-changing regime. Thus the children were going to school in nappies. The education of the parents of young children is just as important as the education of the children themselves.

There is a second aspect that is extremely important. While we welcome this approach and the increased funding, which must be available for all children, we must be careful not to dilute, destabilise or ultimately destroy this provision. There has been talk of the importance of qualifications and the problems of day-care groups and playgroups. Mr Poots mentioned the lack of qualifications, as did others. This is an extremely important point. Nursery-school education must be looked at specifically because that is where there are trained teachers. One would never put a less well-trained doctor in charge of a child in hospital than the doctor who looks after an older person. People dealing with children need proper qualifications.

Mr Poots and Mr Benson mentioned the importance of children being able to mix with peers, which leads to better social skills and fewer social problems. However, there is another very important issue that has not yet been raised — the integrated education system. When we talk about children mixing with their peers we must address the matter of Catholic and Protestant children being educated together. In the past nursery schools were not attached to primary schools, and we had stand-alone nursery schools which both Catholic and Protestant children attended. Now we are moving into a situation — and the Minister should look seriously at this — where nursery schools are being attached. Mr Benson talked about every primary school having a nursery school. However, that would only provide for either Catholics or Protestants and thus encourage separation. We must consider stand-alone nurseries to promote reconciliation. The Good Friday Agreement says

"An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing."

This I know well, for we were involved in putting it into the Good Friday Agreement, and it was definitely meant to include pre-school education. The lack of mixed housing is the problem. There are large estates with 90% to 100% of one religion or the other, and those estates need schools. Much more should be done to promote mixed housing.

Mr Speaker:

May I draw the Member’s attention to the fact that she has now been on her feet for almost twice as long as any other Member, apart from the Member who moved the motion. I ask her to draw her remarks to a close.