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Early Years Education

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh.

There is now almost universal agreement in the House that early years education improves children’s outcomes in school and beyond. I want to focus today on the take-up of the entitlement to 15 hours a week of free early years education for three and four-year-olds, and to stress how important it is that all children should benefit from it. Currently about 8% of three and four-year-olds do not take up their free entitlement. Figures show that children who do not receive early years education are significantly more likely to be from non-working and lower-income families.

The free places were introduced as part of a strategy to improve child outcomes, as an abundance of research has shown that attendance at high-quality settings is linked to improved outcomes, both at the time of attending and later in life. That, too, was a central message in the recent independent review of poverty and life chances by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who said that the first five years of a child’s life were the most important. The Prime Minister agreed, and wrote to him that the foundation years

“are the critical ones in terms of promoting a fairer and more mobile society”.

In short, we all agree that early years education can make a difference to outcomes, and that it has the potential to reduce inequalities.

In January 2010, according to the Department for Education, the number of three-year-olds benefiting from some free early education at maintained schools or in the private, voluntary or independent sector was 584,200—or 92% of the three-year-old population. However, close analysis of the figures shows that the take-up of early years education remains lower among non-working and low-income families, some ethnic groups and families living in more deprived areas, who, I would argue, are precisely the children who would benefit from it most.

The child care and early years survey of parents 2008 showed that uptake of free early education for three and four-year-olds was highest, at 90%, among couple families where both parents were working. The figure for working single parents was 88%. By far the lowest take-up was in couple families where neither parent was working, where the figure was 79%, and among lone parents who were out of work, where it was 76%. That pattern roughly accords with figures that I have obtained locally.

In Stockport, the average take-up of places by three and four-year-olds is 96%, which is above the national average, but in the two most deprived areas of my constituency the take-up figures are lower. In Brinnington the take-up is 92.7% and in Lancashire Hill it is 84%. I believe that the Brinnington figure is higher because it is a more settled community, has a higher working population, and has had the benefit of one of the first children’s centres in the country, whereas Lancashire Hill has lower levels of employment and the population is more unsettled and transient. Although those figures are higher than the national average they are still cause for concern, because it is extremely important that children from the most deprived families should take up their places. Research shows that that increases educational opportunities in life and means those concerned are less likely to fail in later years. It also means that the state needs to spend less money later to pick up the costs of that failure.

Improving take-up of early years education for the most disadvantaged families is crucial. Perhaps some lessons can be learned from the experience of the pilots of free nursery places providing high-quality learning for the most disadvantaged 15% of two-year-olds, which the Labour Government introduced. I welcome the fact that the coalition Government have announced that they will continue that offer, and plan to put their commitment into legislation by 2013. In a written statement yesterday, the Secretary of State for Education referred to the commitment to

“extending free early education with an entitlement for disadvantaged two year olds from 2013”

with funding of £64 million in 2011-12 and £223 million in 2012-13. That will be part of the early intervention grant, which is for early interventions across all the age ranges. The early intervention grant is not ring-fenced. However, in the statement, the Secretary of State said:

“Against the background of greater flexibility to decide priorities locally, there are key areas of early intervention where the Government are ensuring that the overall grant provides support”. —[Official Report, 13 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 68WS.]

One of the key areas is two-year-olds; indeed, specific funding was announced in the statement, together with children’s centres and short breaks for disabled children.

Will the Minister confirm that that is ring-fenced funding? If it is not, will he confirm that the continuation of the current offer for two-year-olds until there is an entitlement in law, in 2013, will be determined by local authorities? As the Secretary of State has announced that the early interventions grant will be 10.9% lower, in 2011-12, than the aggregated funding through predecessor grants, is the Minister confident that local authorities will continue to fund the offer for two-year-olds when there will also be pressure to fund services to young and vulnerable adults? Coincidentally, those are the same disadvantaged young adults whose life chances would have been much improved by early education. If the distribution of all the early intervention grant will be at local authorities’ discretion, what monitoring will the Department do to ensure that there is provision in all local authorities?

Stockport participated in the pilot for two-year-olds, which has been very successful. I believe that that is one of the reasons the take-up of the free entitlement for three and four-year-olds in Stockport is above the national average. Some of that success could be copied and transferred to help to increase the uptake by three to four-year-olds nationally. I maintain that in Stockport take-up has been high because of the nature of the proactive work that has been done in engaging families and children in the pilot for two-year-olds. In addition to high-quality places for 10 hours a week over 38 weeks, Stockport families were given access to strong family support. Although it was not a condition attached to a place, families were actively encouraged to participate in home learning support, or wider parental support. I hope that the Government’s offer for two-year-olds will involve such additional family support, which is vital. As part of the Stockport pilot parents were encouraged to ensure that they obtained an appropriate place for the free entitlement to 15 hours that their child would gain on turning three.

Stockport’s project for two-year-olds was successful also because of strong commitment from all partners. I pay tribute to Vicki Packman, from Stockport’s children and young people’s directorate, and her team, for their incredible enthusiasm and commitment to early years education in Stockport. The Stockport pilot had a data-driven approach, with a clear focus on early intervention and prevention, and family support. Allocation of places was by a multi-agency panel. It built on strong, existing universal and targeted outreach networks. Those teams took a holistic approach to the identification of support needs, and used their professional experience and judgment to refer appropriate families to the panel. They also helped to engage directly a number of hard-to-reach groups. A brokerage service offered by Stockport’s family information service was a key feature. It provided a key contact for parents, some of whom needed extra encouragement, support and advice, and offered home visits to explain the options to the family. In that way the service developed a trusted relationship with parents and carers. An initial visit to the setting was set up for the family and their support worker could attend. Those relationships, formed at an early stage, were crucial to the success of the placement and the project. It is interesting that that brokerage service ensured a very low drop-out rate. Only two children out of 117 left the project, and that was because both moved away from the area. Those figures are truly excellent.

It was very important that those disadvantaged two-year-olds had such a positive experience outside the home, as a proportion would have been on the child protection register, or the family would have experienced recent domestic abuse, or substance misuse in the previous 12 months. There are lessons to be learned, and the success needs to be transferred to encourage the families of three to four-year-olds who receive no early years education to get their children to attend and benefit from the free sessions to which they are entitled.

Kate Wood, the co-ordinator of the Two Year Old pilot project in Stockport explains things perfectly. She said:

“The Two Year Old Pilot Project is giving support to families who need it early on, before challenges become unmanageable. It is giving disadvantaged children a chance to learn and develop with new experiences outside of the home in a positive and social environment and it is giving families a chance to access other activities and services. We hope that these children will be more ready to access their free hours at three and to start school at five and will have the same opportunity to achieve as their peers.”

That is what we want for all those children who have difficult lives: an opportunity for them to learn, develop and have experiences outside the home, which will enable them to cope better and achieve when they start school. There is a variety of reasons why parents say they do not take up their free entitlement. Some parents simply want to look after their own children, but others will lead too chaotic a life and find it too challenging to get their children to the nursery on a regular basis, and we need to help them.

The Department for Children, Families and Schools 2008 survey asked parents who said that their children were not receiving free entitlement whether they were aware that the Government paid for some hours per week of nursery education for three and four-year-olds. Only 61% of those parents said they were aware of the scheme. Will the Minister tell me what plans he has to raise the level of awareness and improve the quality and accessibility of information about free early years education?

When parents were asked where they got their information about child care, the most frequently mentioned source was word of mouth, 41%; followed by school, 18%; local authority was mentioned by 10%; and families’ information services by 8%. Parents also mentioned local advertising, 8%; and health visitors, 6%. Lower income families are more likely than higher income families to mention health visitors or doctors’ surgeries as their sources of information. That suggests that health services may be a particularly good way to provide these groups with information about child care and early years education. Will the Minister, therefore, consider specific plans to use health services to provide disadvantaged groups with early years information?

The 2008 child care and early years survey of parents revealed that families living in deprived areas were less positive about the quality of child care provision than those in affluent areas. That is interesting as, according to the latest 2009 Ofsted report, the quality of early years provision is lower in areas of higher deprivation: the more deprived the area, the lower the number of good and outstanding providers. That raises the possibility that parental perceptions may reflect real geographical variations in quality. Of course, only settings assessed by Ofsted as “good” or “outstanding” were allowed to be used in the pilots for two-year-olds. I hope that in future, standards of settings will still be important criteria. It is vital that the quality of early years education is as good in deprived areas as it is in others.

In some instances, local authorities can also deliver the free entitlement through child minders, who have to be part of a child-minding network and accredited. For example, if a child has specialist needs and requires a higher level of one-to-one care, or a family needs flexible hours to fit in with a particular situation such as shift work, helping to match those families’ needs to a particular type of child care may help to improve the take-up of the free entitlement.

As I said, the clear message from the Stockport pilot was the success of the amount of support work with families. Offering places is not enough. I suggest to the Minister that perhaps one way forward is for the Government’s pupil premium, which recognises disadvantage, to be introduced earlier for three and four-year-olds, enabling that work to be done with disadvantaged families. That would enable local authorities to intervene earlier and work with families at the earliest possible stage. Although it would cost money now, it would save money in the long run. It would also help to target those children who are not classed as the 15% most deprived, and so would not have benefited from the offer regarding two-year-olds, but who are still disadvantaged and are not taking up places for three-year-olds.

The report by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, endorsed by the Prime Minister, said that we must ensure that today’s poor children do not become tomorrow’s poor adults. He said:

“Later interventions to help poorly performing children can be effective but, in general, the most effective and cost-effective way to help and support young families is in the earliest years of a child’s life."

I agree: we must not allow cycles of deprivation and failure to be handed on from one generation to another. The only way to prevent that is to ensure that those children, who, through no fault of their own, are born into disadvantaged homes, are helped. One intervention that we can make is to ensure that all children who are entitled to these very important early years education places are given the opportunity to take them up.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s proposals and ideas to ensure that all disadvantaged three and four-year-old children, who do not currently take up their free early years entitlement, are actively encouraged to do so.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing the time for this important debate. I agree with the vast majority of everything she has said. As she knows, I had the opportunity to go to Stockport in October when I spent a week as a social worker on the front line. I also visited some schools in a child protection context. I saw the excellent services and dedicated professionals that she has in her authority. I applaud the trailblazing in many areas dealing with children in Stockport, to which she alluded.

The hon. Lady raised a couple of specific questions to which I will respond, and made one point about extending the pupil premium. I am delighted that she has embraced the pupil premium so early. It is very early days to say how we might extend or adapt it, given that the details were announced only yesterday. I will take that on board, but I do not think we will be adapting it straight away. She makes a fair point: to ensure that it is useful as early as possible for all the reasons she mentioned.

The provision of free early education is an area where we have broad cross-party agreement, perhaps because the case for investing in the early years has never been more compelling. This debate is timely: yesterday we announced details of the new early intervention grant that brings together funding for universal as well as specialist services, and will be worth £2.212 billion in 2011-12 and £2.297 billion in 2012-13.

Local authorities have built up considerable expertise and experience in the early years. They understand the impact that Sure Start children’s centres have on communities, and they have shown considerable commitment to raising the quality of early years settings. It is that experience that gives me confidence that local authorities are best placed to decide what is best for the families in their communities. The early intervention grant will give local authorities the freedom and flexibility to do that.

Early education is at the heart of our vision to support disadvantaged families. We know, as the hon. Lady says, that it improves children’s school readiness and longer-term cognitive and social development, which can especially benefit the most disadvantaged, helping to improve social mobility and break out of inter-generational cycles of poverty. The recent review on poverty and life chances published by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), mentioned by the hon. Lady, underlined the importance of investing in the early years, and ensuring young children are not disadvantaged from birth. The review by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) into how early intervention programmes can improve the lives of vulnerable children is continuing and doing valuable work.

Although more five-year-olds are achieving well, there is still a 14% achievement gap between those in the most disadvantaged areas and the rest. We need to close that gap. While 95% of children are benefiting from free early education, as the hon. Lady mentioned, among the 5% not currently taking up free places are children from lower income families, those whose mothers do not work, and children from families experiencing multiple disadvantage. The hon. Lady also mentioned families from BME backgrounds and others. She is absolutely right to ask how we can raise the level of awareness and promote the information. Having given a commitment to that 15-hour offer for three and four-year-olds, and having now brought in that additional offer for the most disadvantaged families for two-year-olds as well, it is key that we make it work and ensure that we access the families at which it is most targeted.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide information to parents about early education, and we must ensure that they are living up to that. I also believe there is a greater role for Sure Start children’s centres to promote and reach out, particularly to support disadvantaged families more effectively. The hon. Lady also mentioned health visitors. We propose increasing the number of health visitors working out of Sure Start children’s centres by 4,200. They will be going across the threshold before birth, and intensively after birth. They will work particularly with new parents, to check on their parenting skills, to give them support in those early days and to make them aware of what other services are available. That will include the free entitlement. The hon. Lady is right to say that we need to promote it more.

As an example—I have discussed this with the hon. Lady—I visited a family in Stockport. They were in desperate circumstances, living in a run-down house with hardly any furniture and no carpets, and literally no food. There were four sons under the age of 12, from three fathers, and a loving but rather inadequate mother. I visited the house with a very good social worker, who had been working intensively with the family. The social worker and various other professionals had been in and out of that house, but still things were not right. I asked why those children had not been taken into care, although doing so would raise all sorts of other problems. However inadequate, that mother doted on her four young boys. However inadequate, those four young boys doted on their mother; they relied on her and needed to stay with her. If they had gone into care, I fear that the family would have been split up, with all sorts of ramifications.

What struck me more than anything is that the mother needed almost to be taken by the arm and marched down to the children’s centre to be told about good parenting skills—let alone, if it had been earlier, about the free entitlement to ensure that her kids were getting good quality care in the nursery—and marched down to the supermarket to be told what sort of food she should be buying for her children. There is scope for social workers working with such families, with health visitors becoming involved earlier and with children’s centres helping to promote the scheme. The hon. Lady was right to mention it. Our aim is to intervene early in order to close the gaps that I have mentioned and to ensure that every child has a fair chance of succeeding. We want to focus particular support on those disadvantaged families that can benefit most. There are a number of ways in which we propose doing so.

First, all families value choice and flexibility, yet we know that disadvantaged families have less choice of provider and are more likely to cite lack of availability of free places as a reason for not taking up their entitlement. We are working with providers to explore ways of reducing the administrative burden and making it easier to establish business, particularly in disadvantaged areas. We will consolidate and substantially reduce the 200 pages of early-education guidance to local authorities, to help free up local early years markets.

Local authorities will be able to encourage new forms of provision. The Localism Bill, which was published yesterday, will give people new rights to bid to run local services. We seek to identify a national organisation that will be able to equip providers with the skills needed to run their businesses more effectively. The national implementation of the early years single funding formula will ensure that local funding decisions are more transparent. We will use the forthcoming education Bill to clarify the position of maintained nursery schools and other nurseries in schools in being able to charge for additional nursery education beyond the free 15 hours, to help increase choice for parents.

Secondly, despite an extremely difficult fiscal position, we have fulfilled the commitment that we made to early education in our programme for government, by retaining a universal entitlement to 15 hours of free education a week for all three and four-year-olds, as I mentioned earlier. We did so not only because it was the right thing to do but because evidence shows that nursery education that is free at the point of delivery is the best way to ensure that disadvantaged families do not face barriers when trying to access it. Indeed, the experience of the pathfinder local authorities shows that the increased time and the increased flexibilities that come with it have been successful in attracting more families. On average, 2% more three-year-olds accessed their free place for the first time; and those families who previously did not take full advantage of it increased the number of hours that they took by 1.8%.

From April, we will ensure through regulation that all local authorities include a deprivation supplement in their early years single funding formula, which will mean that all disadvantaged children will attract a higher level of funding. As a result, money will be provided for those children who need it most, as well as incentivising providers to offer free places to those families. When children start school, the pupil premium will follow them from reception year onwards, and as I said earlier we will consider whether it should be extended to nursery education over time.

Thirdly, all the evidence shows that only quality provision can have a real impact for young people. We want to work with local authorities and providers in supporting it, and we will focus relentlessly on ensuring that all children are able to access their free provision in a quality setting. Central to a quality setting is a quality work force. We are committed by March to announcing a strategy to improve the quality of the early years work force and the development of a new generation of leaders for that sector. Local authorities such as Stockport are experienced in offering free places for two, three and four-year-olds, and they understand well the connection between quality and the outcome for children. I anticipate that they will want to draw on this expertise when making decisions about places.

Finally, despite the extremely challenging fiscal position, we have been able to commit ourselves to extending free nursery education to all disadvantaged two-year-olds by 2013. By getting this support earlier to those families that will benefit most from it, we are confident that it will help to increase participation at the ages of three and four. Local authorities like Stockport have shown that starting even earlier can have a significant and positive impact on language ability and on the parent-child relationship. The expansion will start quickly. Subject to the approval of Parliament, measures in the education Bill will enable Ministers to introduce an entitlement to 15 hours of free provision a week for all disadvantaged two-year-olds.

In response to the hon. Lady’s concern about funding, I am happy to confirm that we will provide £64 million next year to enable local authorities to continue funding places for two-year-olds. In addition, the Department has set aside £4 million for 2011-12 to trial new approaches to delivering the entitlement. Although funding for the early intervention grant is not ring-fenced, and although decisions will be made locally, there will be a statutory entitlement for two-year-olds to access this education from 2013. Extending entitlement to disadvantaged two-year-olds is a key strategy for increasing take-up at the age of three. Total funding will rise to £223 million in 2012-13 to enable local authorities to build towards that entitlement. Funding will rise further, with an additional £300 million by 2014-15.

The lessons learned from the two-year-old pilot will be central to that expansion. Outreach will be critical. As shown in Stockport, the most disadvantaged families are far less likely to pick up the phone and ask, or to turn up at children’s centres. The pilots showed that the most effective way to engage families was to go out and find them, knock on their doors and then support them into a setting. We want Sure Start children’s centres to play a prominent role in this work, helping to ensure that the most challenged families take advantage of the free entitlements, alongside other family support. Taken together, we know that they can make a huge difference to children’s outcomes.

Our reforms place early education squarely at the centre of the Government’s efforts to combat child poverty and increase social mobility. This week’s announcement on the early intervention grant will have started the process of spending reviews in local authorities across the country. The strength and growing maturity of the sector means that it is well placed for the next stage. Early years professionals will be able to take part in these reviews confident in the knowledge that they have the full backing of the Government; confident that, in local authority members and officers, they have an audience that recognises their achievements and is proud of them; and confident, above all, that what they do really works.

I am enormously grateful for the support that the hon. Lady has given to this agenda today. She has raised some important concerns, and I hope that she is happy that the Government echo them. The steps that we have taken underline the importance of early education in getting the most disadvantaged members of society to gain access to early years education for their children. The Government have made a substantial financial commitment. We wish to ensure that it is taken up and that it works, because it is the right thing to do.