Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 25 January 2000 (continued)

Ms Morrice:

I will. I consider this an important issue, which is why I have taken so long.

My final point concerns career development for women head teachers. If one bolts nursery schools on to primary schools, there will be fewer opportunities for career development, since many women become head teachers of nursery schools.

I am surprised and delighted that we are all in agreement. Let us not have 75%; let us not have 95% — let us have 100% nursery-school provision.

Mrs Carson:

Some people do not know what a nursery school, or a play school or a childcare facility is, and that needs to be dealt with, but it is not what I am going to speak about today. I am a nursery-school trained teacher and an ex-primary school principal. I have some background information, and I found nothing to bar a nursery-school teacher from going into primary education. I am also a governor of a nursery school.

I welcome the Labour Party’s initiative to provide pre-school education for four-year-olds, including children in Northern Ireland. The programme has been targeted at socially disadvantaged children, but I hope that good pre-school education will be provided for all children whose parents want it. There was general euphoria, as I would describe it, following the Minister’s announcement last Thursday of what appeared to be a new initiative to establish 9,000 new pre-school places and provide an additional £38 million. However, it was not obvious to some that the Department of Education has been funding this very initiative since September 1998. After two years, approximately 4,000 of these places have already been filled.

I welcome this ongoing initiative and look forward to the Department, in partnership with the education boards, delivering the target of 9,000 places by September 2001. I welcome the fact that it is anticipated that, from September this year, free school places will be available to some 75% of those eligible.

Historically there has been good cross-community enrolment in nursery schools and units, though mainly in the controlled sector, and this should be encouraged. Given the falling birth rate, any existing resources, such as accommodation, should be fully utilised before new capital funding is considered.

Concerns have been raised about places being found for children with special educational needs. I note the admissions criteria set out in the Statutory Instrument No 29 of 1999. They allow each school the option of giving children with special educational needs in their final pre-school year priority over any other child who is not from socially disadvantaged circumstances and who does not have a July or August birthday.

The Department for Education accepts that children with statemented, special educational needs can be admitted over and above the enrolment numbers. I hope that that information will go some way towards satisfying those who are concerned about priority being given to children from socially disadvantaged circumstances.

The initiative to increase pre-school places should not be seen as the state’s taking on a parental or childminding role. The parents and the home have priority, and parents must accept that they play the major role in their children’s development and education. We have nursery schools, but we must remember that home is the priority.

I expect the Department of Education to monitor standards and give priority to ensuring that the professional teaching staff have adequate support staff with relevant childcare training. I am in favour of good practice in all establishments — and I mean all establishments — and of providing facilities that ensure the educational advancement of our children. I hope that the Department of Education ensure that the provision of these pre-school places meets the needs of all sections of our community.

Mr ONeill:

I thank Mrs Carson for clarifying the different elements involved in this matter. It was badly needed. I also welcome the Minister’s recent announcement promising funding for pre-school children.

The value and benefits of pre-school education and childcare are well recognised and provide a good foundation for subsequent educational success. Some research indicates that most people learn the bulk of whatever they are going to learn by the time they are four years old. In the 1960s one enthusiastic philosopher indicated that you might learn as much as 80% of all you are going to learn by the time you are four. If one considers the mechanics of walking, talking, listening, tasting, differentiating size, shapes and colours, one begins to appreciate the enormity of the learning that goes on in those formative years.

However, that information and research such as this was available to the Department of Education in the 1960s, yet only now, as we move into the year 2000, are we getting some kind of positive response to it. Free places for 75% of children are certainly very welcome. Of course, we all look forward to the time when there are free places for 100%.

I suppose we must welcome the indication from the Department. Perhaps, now we will be able to get movement, particularly on accessibility to and the quality of childcare and education and development of the service in general.

I do not subscribe to Mr Benson’s view that social disadvantage is not an acceptable criterion. All modern educational research identifies social disadvantage as a major reason for many children having learning difficulties. Of course, things get more difficult when social disadvantage is used in the wrong way. We have come across examples of this in the allocation of nursery-school places, when very young children "hop over" others who would be more suitable for pre-school education because of the social-disadvantage clause. The solution is, as Mr Benson and everyone else have said, that we facilitate access for all children.

This matter is very important, not only for the educational development of children, but for the personal development opportunities of women, the economic welfare of many households and the economic development of a region. They all interlock. As some Members have already said, women may take 70% of new jobs over the next six years. The Strategy 2010 steering group emphasised the need to develop specific measures to encourage the full participation of women. The draft proposals co-ordinated by the Department of Finance and Personnel for the next round of European Union structural funding specifically identify support for pre-school education as a part of gender equality in employment.

The goal of improving access to childcare and education for pre-school children also means that there will be a need for more well-qualified and experienced workers.

4.00 pm

Quality among those workers is patchy. Recent audits by health and social services boards estimate that as many as 50% of current workers have no relevant qualifications. The Training and Employment Agency is committed to achieving up to 1,500 training places under the New Deal. The recent formation of a working committee on planning review and training provision is taking forward the development of a training strategy with the aim, according to the childcare strategy, of providing the skills that are going to be needed by the existing and future day-care workforce in Northern Ireland.

The intention of improving the pool of quality workers raises a question about trainees. For trainees to achieve a suitable standard, facilities to enable them to get plenty of childcare experience must be open to them.

The capacity issue is significant, given the relatively small travel-to-work distances in rural areas.

There must be consistent local training capacity across rural communities to ensure that quality staff are available. That is a big issue, but how can such capacity be achieved when current regulations stipulate that only one trainee can be taken on per 20 children? That creates all types of problems, and I have referred examples to the Minister. The regulations that are currently imposed on some centres should be relaxed. At present in my trust area two fully qualified workers, the cost of whom is likely to put small nurseries out of business, must attend each room. The alternative is to force day-care centres to increase the size of rooms to take more children, and that would not be conducive to good education or to the quality of care that is necessary for pre-school education.

In rural areas a building is often used, particularly in the voluntary and private sectors, for pre-school nursery education. One argument is that the smaller the room, the better the teaching and learning. However, two people are required for each room although only one trainee is allowed per 20 children. Consequently everyone is put in a big room with the required number of staff, or people less qualified than even a trainee are employed. There are arguments for encouraging an increase in the number of trainees or for relaxing the regulations in a sensible and reasonable way.

Mr S Wilson:

I welcome the opportunity that Edwin Poots has provided for a debate on this important issue. The debate is timely, and the response shows that the matter is important to the people we represent. In his recent statement the Minister of Education outlined his spending plans for pre-school education for the next four years.

One of the Assembly’s roles is to give Members an opportunity to get behind the gloss of departmental statements and the spin which the Minister and the Department are trying to put on them. We must ask some hard questions about the policies and about the content of the Minister’s statement.

I want to ask a number of questions, which, I hope, will be addressed later. The first is to do with the £38 million that the Minister has announced for the next four years. This time last year, the Minister announced £24·4 million for three years. The impression that was given in that statement was that this was brand new money, additional funding for pre-school education in the Province. That, of course, is typical New Labour spin. It announces spending programmes in different places five or six times over, and it looks as though a lot is happening.

Sinn Féin has adopted many of New Labour’s characteristics. Its desire for control is well-known, as Mr McElduff can tell us from his police liaison experience in his constituency.

Perhaps the Minister can tell us why eight special advisers have been appointed, some of them with no experience in their appointed fields. Is this yet another example of the New Labour tendencies emanating from the Department of Education? I would be interested to know how much of this is new money that is being injected into the system.

Secondly, on the detail of the scheme itself, one of the statements in the document on which much of the present policy is based is that children who have good pre-school education, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with special needs, are prepared for school and learn more quickly.

Some Members have already taken up the issue of disadvantaged backgrounds. We had a debate in the Assembly some time ago on the criterion which was used to deem whether people came from a disadvantaged background. The current criterion severely disadvantages and discriminates against parents in low-paid employment who do not live in areas where there is a cluster of wards which meet the normal deprivation indices. Nevertheless, their youngsters could benefit from pre-school education.

I hope that this will be sorted out as the number of places expands. However, I still believe that that criterion is faulty, because it means that many youngsters who should benefit from pre-school education are unable to gain access to it. That can put their parents’ jobs in jeopardy, and if they are unable to work, they will not be able to pay for a place for their child.

I hope that the targeting of new places will help to address that problem. I would be interested to know how many of these additional places will be available to the other category of people mentioned in the Government’s document — those with special needs. Again there is no indication of that in the statement. It is a point of detail, but something on which I would like more information.

The third issue that I wish to address concerns the targeting of these places. As has already been stated, the provision of nursery places across the Province is not even — in some areas it is as low as 50%. In some areas parents queued outside schools all night to get places for their children because the number of places was so low. According to the plan which has been drawn up, there should be an indication, on a year-to-year basis, of where these places are to be provided in each education and library board area. We have the figures for 1998-99, and I hope that we will soon have the figures for the period covered by the money which has been announced by the Minister.

Finally, I wish to mention the criteria under which new nursery places are going to be provided. I do not want to highlight any particular constituency problem — I shall do that with the Department. However, there appears to be an inconsistency. An East Belfast school, which applied for a nursery unit as part of its new development scheme, was turned down on the basis that urban areas must be able to provide or have a demand for 52 places. The Minister has confirmed that, but it was pointed out to him that some new schools have been built that provide only 26 nursery places. The answer was that this is only in rural areas.

I am sure that the Member for Londonderry will be surprised to know that Oakwood Integrated Primary School is in a rural area. This year it has been given funds to build a nursery unit with 26 places only while a controlled primary school in Belfast has been turned down because, in an urban area, the minimum number of places is 52.

I do not know whether Omagh is regarded as rural, semi-rural or urban, but in Omagh, an integrated primary school is getting funds for 26 places this year. The Minister must justify the funding of new nursery units for 26 youngsters in one sector while he imposes a limit of 52 places in another sector. He knows full well that a small estate school could never provide, and will never have a demand for, 52 places. In effect, in certain areas of the Province, the controlled sector is being discriminated against.

These are some of my questions on the Minister’s statement on pre-school education, and I trust that we will get some answers before the end of the debate.

Mr McElduff:

A Chathaoirligh. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an díospóireacht seo. Is maith an rud é go n-aithnítear chomh tábhachtach agus atá an réamhscolaíocht sa lá atá inniu ann.

I welcome the Minister to this important debate, and I welcome the relative unanimity and consensus among the Members who have spoken. So far the debate has been mostly positive and substantial in tone and content. I also wish to commend the initiative taken by Mr Poots, who tabled the motion.

The value of pre-school and nursery education should be placed in the context of children’s rights. The well-being of children requires political action at the highest level. Sinn Féin is determined to take that action, and it makes a solemn commitment to give high priority to the rights of children, as did 71 heads of state at a world summit for children in New York, which approved the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

4.15 pm

"Educaré" means to cherish the growth of the young, or in Irish oideachas which means to foster parenting, nurturing what is natural. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí: praise the youth and it will develop. Those philosophies or maxims point the way for us all in this debate. The rights and concerns of children are crucial. They have particular needs, which require special measures, and they must be respected. Children need to be heard for their self-esteem to be fostered and for them to develop.

As Members have said, it is universally acknowledged — and this is supported by research — that there is real value in pre-school education. A safe, secure, happy and stimulating environment is crucial and conducive to a child’s personal development. Social interaction, learning social and motor skills through free and structured play, and showing consideration for others are important at an age when young minds have a huge capacity for learning — young minds that are exploding with ideas at an age of curiosity and discovery. Perhaps what one wants to say is decided in childhood, and the rest of one’s life is spent trying to say it. That is the philosophy that guides the need to nurture young people in pre-school education.

Ms Morrice commended the integrated sector. I support that, and I commend the virtues and benefits that accrue from the bilingual approach and naíscoileanna. It has a proven advantage, and it is a growing sector. Bilingualism, as is evident in Wales, is very positive. The Good Friday Agreement is the context in which we should view our presence here today. It contains specific commitments to Irish-medium education at pre-school and other levels.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement of the £38 million pre-school expansion programme which will be effective from September. All sectors, including controlled, maintained, integrated and Irish-medium will benefit. This is an enlightened and positive announcement, and it is qualified by a determination on the part of Sinn Féin to accelerate towards universal availability of free nursery or play-group places in a range of settings — private, voluntary and statutory. That is contained in our party’s ‘Programme for Government’, our Clár Rialtais.

From September, the programme will apply to three out of four pre-school children — 75%. Questions are being asked about how we will get to total emancipation, but this is an improvement on the situation in February of last year, when there was 60% availability, and on the situation three years ago, when the figure was 45%.

Some Members spoke about the wise investment that it represents in our children and in society as a whole. It is wise even from an economic prospective, although that is not how I would choose to look at it.

On children from disadvantaged backgrounds, I support Mr ONeill’s point that the criteria are a useful indicator. Until there is universal access, parents on income support should enjoy some priority. I have visited a number of naíscoileanna and English-medium nursery units in west Tyrone, and I pay tribute to the staff who are trying to ensure the best possible start for all our children. They show great enthusiasm, dedication and hard work. As a parent, I can testify to that.

Some Members identified issues such as qualifications and training and a curriculum that can foster respect for diversity and other cultures. The unmet need has been quantified at 25% from September. A timetable and targets should be established to ensure universal availability and access for all. That will require more funding, but it would be entirely merited. Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.

Mr B Bell:

I am grateful to Mr Poots for the chance to address this issue. I have no educational background, but I am a parent and a grandparent, and in my capacity as a public representative I have served on boards of governors and the like. I want to make some random points on what I have gathered from the debate.

All children should have the chance of pre-school education, and that applies equally to the children of single parents and to those whose parents Mr Benson described as "the backbone of this society". Children are children, and they should all have the same opportunities.

The Government have introduced this scheme, and it has been referred to throughout the debate as "new Labour policy". They seem to have started by targeting areas of social need. I have no objection to this, as long as that is only the start. Like Tom Benson, I believe that the children of the "backbone" people should have the same opportunities as the children of others.

I welcome the announcement of 75% provision. This is something that we should all aim to raise, but I am glad that we have it. The thing that worries me about targeting social need is the criterion by which the Government measure it: the ward system. Mr Poots referred to this, and it is an unsatisfactory system. This Assembly, the Department of Education and the Minister should all look at it very carefully.

Take Seymour Hill. There is a school there which needs 26 places. Under no circumstances, thus far, will the Department look at that. Yet Seymour Hill is in Derriaghy ward, which has pockets of 67% unemployment. Quite clearly this criterion is wrong. Lisburn and Lagan Valley do not have too many wards that could be described as deprived, but within almost all of them there are areas that fall into that category. I would like the Assembly, the Minister and the Education Committee to look at this very closely.

Today we have listened to several Members discussing the policies of the Labour Party. These no longer apply. This is the Northern Ireland Assembly. We should be creating our own policies and doing things our way. Let us make our own policies for 100% provision over the next three or four years.

Dr Hendron:

I too congratulate Mr Poots for bringing this important subject before the Assembly. I am pleased that the Minister of Education is present.

Most Members will understand and appreciate that when a child starts school at the age of five it may be advantaged, or if it comes from a certain area, or a certain environment, it may be disadvantaged.

A child is born with a certain intelligence quotient. Its intelligence depends mainly on genetic factors, but environment also affects how the child’s intelligence develops. It is therefore very important that, from the moment babies are born, they all have, at the very least, a suitable and positive environment to help their intelligence develop.

It is not just a question of a child being very bright or stupid at birth. Although it is mainly influenced by genetic and environmental factors, other factors come into play. When the Department of Health and Social Services published its document ‘Well into 2000’ in December 1997 it focused on children’s early years. We were told that the Government — I will not say new Labour — were committed to developing a national childcare strategy which would include pre-school nursery provision. They emphasised that Northern Ireland would be fully included in that strategy. The interdepartmental committee on early years was set up to oversee the development and implementation of a strategy for Northern Ireland, and that programme is on course.

In September 1999 the ‘Children First’ document, the Northern Ireland childcare strategy, was printed. Three main problems in relation to childcare, including pre-school nursing, were highlighted. One was that the quality was variable, and the speeches this afternoon have borne that out. The second was cost, which was out of reach for many parents. The third was that there were not enough childcare places, especially in certain areas.

The Executive and the Assembly must ensure that good quality childcare and nursery provision are available in every community to allow parents to choose childcare which meets their needs. Far more places need to be provided.

The sure-start programme was mentioned. I have some experience of that programme on the Shankill Road, and I pay tribute to all who are involved in it. It must be continually adapted, as necessary, to Northern Ireland’s particular priorities and circumstances. The programme aims to work with parents who have children under the age of four in areas of social disadvantage to promote the physical, intellectual and social development of pre-school children. That is relevant to the comments I made earlier about the ongoing development of a child’s personality and intelligence. We need to ensure that children have the best possible start in life.

Family centres, which I think were mentioned earlier, are very important. Children and parents can go to them for advice or to participate in social and recreational activities. I welcome the increase in the number of pre-school nursery places, and I welcome the Minister’s recent statement.

In many areas of Northern Ireland there are massive problems in terms of numeracy and literacy. However, we need to look after young children, particularly those under the age of five. Mr ONeill, the Member for South Down, made the point that a child’s maximum potential for learning — I have forgotten the exact percentage — was achieved by the age of four. That is a very important point in relation to the future of our children.

I would prefer access for all, and I know that Members agree. However, children with learning difficulties, as Mrs Carson said, must be given priority, although I also believe, like Mr ONeill, that children from disadvantaged areas should be given priority as well. I accept the point made by Mr S Wilson, I think, on how disadvantage is defined. That in itself could be a subject for massive debate, and I do not wish to embark upon it now.

I am delighted by the unanimity in the Chamber on this topic. I believe that in the future the Assembly and the Executive will put our children first — especially the younger children.

4.30 pm

Mr Shannon:

Pre-school nursery provision is an issue that affects most of us, and our constituents frequently raise the matter. For the modern family, with both parents working — not by choice, but through necessity — pre-school nursery provision is very important. Parents have their careers, and they are entitled to pursue them. Pre-school nursery provision ensures that, as their lives and careers continue, their children are looked after during working hours.

Nursery-school provision is an important issue in my constituency of Strangford. Many new groups have started in the area, and not always with the necessary financial provision. There is a group in Portavogie, and other groups are starting in other villages in the Ards Peninsula. There is remarkable need for pre-school nursery provision in Newtownards. There is some provision already, but, with the growth of the town, demand is now outstripping supply. This demand must be met.

There are three issues that we must address. Changes to the legislation with regard to full-time nursery-school provision should be made sooner rather than later. It is important for children to have five hours nursery-school provision rather than the two and a half hours that are available now. This is accepted by parents. The teachers’ union would also prefer a five-hour day, as it would benefit both the children and their parents.

Full-time places would fit in well with the Government’s back-to-work policy. They would also enable a better core education, and this is what both teachers and parents want to see. The longer period is more appealing. Indeed, the push for part-time places is open to criticism. The figures used for the various views are a statistician’s dream. The figures can be made to show that the Government have succeeded or that the Department has succeeded. As we all know, we have lies and damned lies, and then we have statistics. We must ensure that the Government’s or the Department’s statistics are appropriate, applicable and not misleading.

The Government should not force — or push — schools to change their emphasis towards part-time places. We need full-time places for all. Full-time places for everyone — that is the thrust of the message that we are being given.. The need is there; and the need has to be met.

It is a fact of life that most parents work because they need the money. For that reason pre-school nursery provision is important to the parents, but it is also essential for the children. My two smallest boys went to a pre-school nursery. Wee boys can be shy, but it certainly helped mine to develop. They have no difficulty communicating, and their personalities have also developed. The youngest boy went from being a wee fellow who said nothing to a boy who now never keeps quiet — my wife would say that it is hard on her eardrums. This is proof that pre-school nursery provision can help the wee children develop. It improves their communication skills and develops their personalities.

We do not know how the seeds sown by nursery-school provision will benefit our children in later years.

There are also children with special needs who need particular help. The experts say that those who look after pre-school nursery children can take at least two special-needs children in a group of 26 children. That is something that should be looked into. We want to see opportunities for all children, including those with special needs. Undoubtedly, such opportunities will help them develop, and society as a whole will benefit.

The enrolment procedure needs to be better advertised. It has been advertised in the past through newspapers and advertisements, but that method was not really satisfactory. We have asked for consideration to be given to a television or media blitz. Every home has a television, and it is a focal point in the everyday life of the family. So let us have the enrolment better advertised through television, and in a sensible and positive way. The advertisement should highlight the admissions criteria so that people will understand them, and it should be simple, acceptable and easily understood.

There are three aspects in the criteria that perhaps we could look at again. First, it should be open to all in their final pre-school year. Secondly, the available vacant places should be re-advertised. And, thirdly, any remaining places should be filled by two-year-olds. By so doing, the three-year-olds would be considered before the two-year-olds.

It is important that the Department should also implement an annual review to iron out any problems that may arise in the process. It could address the problems and, thereby, make the system more effective as the years go on.

I congratulate the Member who brought this matter forward. It may be the first time in this Chamber that we have had unanimous agreement. On this issue we are all together.

Mr McHugh:

A Chathaoirligh. I would also like to commend the Member who raised this matter and gave everyone the opportunity to speak in this debate. The education of very young children is a most important matter.

I refer to Mr Wilson’s comments about experience. Experience is not everything in education. Every person has his own experience of education, and one does not necessarily have to be a teacher to be able to teach children, to have a good grasp of what is needed in the learning industry and to know what is best for young children. In fact, if some people were to look in on some of the debates in this House, they would wonder what sort of learning experience some of the DUP Members had in the past and what they would offer our children by way of education.

I welcome the fact that this has been a cross-party debate with most people in agreement about what is needed for the young. We hope that the £38 million given to pre-school education, some of which is not new, will be directed to where it is needed most. However, there are gaps, and parents are not happy about where moneys have been directed.

An important matter is equality. I agree with the points made by Mr ONeill about social disadvantage and the importance of allowing the children in deprived families early access to education without having to pay, which is often a great deterrent to those on very low incomes. There are areas of deprivation where people have been stigmatised, and stigmatisation carries through for a very long time. There are many other areas concerning money, which have had to be put right — that is a different argument — but children from those areas need to understand that they are just as important as any other children in the country. Therefore the stigmatisation of areas should not be allowed to continue.

The issue of starting age has been raised, and I was intrigued by the debate about whether children should start education at four or six years of age. Some research is required, and this is a debate which will continue, but it is something we must get right. There has to be a correct age, and statistics must be able to prove what that age is. Members have mentioned that 80% of a child’s learning is achieved by the age of four, so there is much to be considered.

Access to education is very important. When the thrust of Pre-school Education Advisory Group plans for pre-school places was known, there was much soul-searching and many arguments. Many felt disgruntled. They were being forced to accept facilities they did not want and which were outside their area. People felt an attachment to their local area because the facilities in those areas were provided by local community effort. They felt that their feelings were being disregarded, that they were being forced to use a school in another area where 52 places existed and that they had no choice in the matter. There was insufficient consultation on this issue, and it is one which continues to influence people’s level of satisfaction.

In relation to the issue of dividing communities, access is a very important matter. Some local communities could have been pulled together better if a more neutral area had been chosen.

The location of facilities is more important in rural areas than in city or urban areas because of the cost of travel. Some mothers might have to use taxis to pick up children at different times of the day, at great expense. The need to travel five miles to the nearest town where a facility is located is a great deterrent for people, especially those with children between two years of age and school-starting age. We do not want a situation whereby some children are losing out because of the placing of these facilities.

Care also needs to be taken by all of those involved to ensure that they do not make people who receive benefits feel that they are of lesser consequence than others who are paying or who are less deprived. This has not always been the case, and perhaps this is an area which Departments could examine.

There is the possibility that we will create further division between communities which have been trying to pull together unless we look carefully at the placing of facilities in local areas. Pre-school education is an area where parents of all shades find common ground in working together for the benefit of local children and the local community.

The provision of childcare through crèche facilities at work is an equality issue concerning women’s access to work. This is another facility which promotes early learning in children, whether it be located at work or at training centres. It is a great learning experience for children — especially those from small families —to interact with other children of the same age.

This argument has a long way to go. I welcome most of the comments made by Members, even if I could not agree with everything they said.

4.45 pm

Mr K Robinson:

The House considered this issue last March, and although it was an extremely interesting debate, it was very poorly attended, as Members may remember. I am glad Mr Poots has given us a second opportunity to bring the subject before the House. As several Members have mentioned, this is a core subject.

In March I said that I fully endorsed the Government’s long-stated aim of providing high-quality educational places for all children in their pre-school year. Several Members made that point over and over again today. The Government set out with an extremely laudable aim but were blown slightly off course. Perhaps their social conscience got in the way of educational sense. As Mr ONeill pointed out, the amount of learning a child can acquire by the age of four is stupendous.

If children could get into pre-school provision for that fourth year the benefits would be enormous. However, I am not totally convinced that sending a two-year-old — probably still not properly potty-trained — would be of advantage either to the child or to the person struggling to educate him or her in the ways of the world when there are other children at a more advanced stage to be looked after.

I should like to return to the Minister. On a recent visit to his native Londonderry he said that, owing to a major £38 million programme, there would be free pre-school places for 75% of pre-primary children this year — the largest investment ever made in pre-school provision here. He made the announcement in a local nursery school, where he said that he could see the delivery of high-quality pre-school education at first hand.

I do not agree with him on the first part of his statement, but I certainly agree with him on the second. Is he perhaps referring to the £38 million mentioned in the press release recently issued by his Department? I have here a letter dated 23 March 1999 from his predecessor, in which he refers to £35 million. A figure of £24 million has also been bandied about. Whether this is the result of spin, faulty arithmetic or a deficiency in numeracy I am not entirely sure, but perhaps the Minister will tell us which is the correct figure. However, I am sure we all welcome the fact that money is being spent in this area.

Pushing the number of places is one thing. We all welcome that, but can the Minister and his Department be absolutely sure that these are quality places? It is quality which counts here. We need places which will give children, especially those from a disadvantaged background, the firm educational foundation they will require if they are to engage in lifelong learning. This is necessary if that lifelong learning is to become a reality rather than a mere cliché, regardless of which party it emerged from. What steps will the Minister’s Department be taking to ensure that these additional places are quality places? Quality must be delivered by properly trained staff, and this has been mentioned time and time again.

My Colleague Joan Carson referred to the difference between pre-school provision and nursery education. I know that the nursery sector feels extremely sore about this, but we must have quality education. Every Member wishes to ensure that there is as much quality provision as possible for children, especially those in disadvantaged areas. Will we maximise the potential of training places in colleges such as Stranmillis? That college has a course leading to an early-years qualification. Will the Minister enhance the number of places available on such courses? If he were to we could begin to pour an increased number of children into pre-school education, not to mention properly trained staff. This should also happen in the case of NVQ assistants. We have to ensure that that provision exists, since, to some degree, it is supplementing a deficit in certain areas.

Can we also be assured that, these extra pre-school places having been provided, the standard of provision will be carefully monitored to ensure that there is a high degree of comparability across the Province? The standards that exist in West Tyrone — we hear the words "west of the Bann" bandied around in the House every other day — must equate with the standards east of the Bann, north or south of Lough Neagh or in whichever other geographical area you care to mention. There should be some measure of uniformity so that all children can gain access to high-quality provision headed up by well-qualified staff.

Can we be sure that the locations in which our children are introduced to life are of good quality? Mr ONeill mentioned the size of classrooms and the need to ensure that that delivery is in the best possible location.

At the end of the process, can this community be assured that we have provided much more than a childminding service? That is a problem I have. I understand the economic need to get more women out into the workforce, and if ladies want to go out to work, they should be encouraged to do so. However, we have a duty — particularly the Minister and those involved in education — to ensure that it is the educational provision that comes first. If good quality provision helps the childcare facilities on the way, so be it. Let us not get our priorities the wrong way round.

Can we be absolutely sure that if we bring all these bits and pieces together we will put as many of these tiny feet as possible on a secure path for lifelong learning that will serve them well in the future? Someone claimed in the debate that the fact that one did not go to nursery school increased one’s chances of going to other more interesting places. Whether that is true, I am not sure. I did not go to nursery school, and I do not know whether I lost something in that process or not. It is a necessity that a caring parent who feels secure in parenting skills should be available to a child, as Dr Hendron said, from a very early age.

Anything we are attempting to do in the pre-school sector should not be a substitute for good parenting skills in a caring home. If that means putting in the kind of early-years support that we have heard about in the Shankill Road and other areas, so be it. I hope the Minister will take all those aspects into account.

I commend Mr Poots for bringing this forward and giving us the opportunity to have a wide-ranging debate on the subject.


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