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Disadvantaged Children

Volume 521: debated on Thursday 20 January 2011

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of improving life chances for disadvantaged children.

I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for giving parliamentary time to this important subject, and by paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), from whom we look forward to hearing. His work, of course, is the prompt for this debate. He has once again contributed hugely to the wider debate on such matters.

Following briefings with the right hon. Gentleman, which were organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), he and I jointly applied for this debate. I know my hon. Friend is very disappointed—as I am—that he cannot be here today because of Select Committee work.

The debate is timely given the publication yesterday of the study on early-years intervention by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). I am reminded with each passing birthday that life begins at 40—although I am increasingly coming to believe that it begins at 50—but, sadly, the prospects of many of our poorest children will be largely settled by the time they have reached the age of six. The hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful study and recommendations make another compelling case for much-enhanced early action to ensure that every child can reach its potential. I know that it will have a wide readership on both sides of the House.

We have many opportunities to make party political debating points in the House, and doubtless hon. Members will want to make some today. That is not a bad thing, even if it is avoidable. However, I hope and trust that it will not be the dominant feature of this debate, because the issue of disadvantaged children crosses a number of Government Departments. Obviously, it involves the Department for Education and children’s services, but it also involves the Department of Health, housing, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and other Departments.

Such issues go to the heart of why so many hon. Members on both sides of the Houses were motivated to go into politics in the first place. There is so much more that unites us in our objectives than divides us, but that is not to say that consensus is always possible, or even desirable, because in both political traditions, conventional wisdom and orthodoxy need to be questioned, and there is much to hypothesise, challenge and debate.

The rather depressing facts of the case, working backwards, are that among adults there is a significant wage premium for having grown up in a better-off, better educated family. That is true across much of the developed world, but it is especially true in this country. Some 1 million young adults are not in education, employment or training. The best universities are dominated by those from better-off families. Just 16% of students at Russell group universities are from the lower socio-economic groups, although they make up half of the population. In secondary schools, the odds of getting five or more good GCSEs are four times greater for children with degree-educated parents. Even at the start of primary school, twice as many children are school-ready at the age of three in the top income quintile—the top fifth of earning families—compared to those at the bottom. Those in the bottom fifth are a third more likely than those in top fifth to have conduct problems or be hyperactive.

The differences between children start very early, based on the father’s occupation, the mother’s education and housing tenure. They accentuate and widen further at every stage between the ages of 3 and 14. However, there are two important riders to that. First, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North points out, what parents do is far more important than who they are. Secondly, it is not actually the income of the parents that drives the income of their children: it is their education that drives the future success of their children, and it just so happens that educational attainment is closely correlated with parental income.

The statistical patterns of yesterday and today can be broken. If we get the early years and education right, anything is possible. In the early years—what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead calls the foundation years—most of the success factors are not rocket science. They include a healthy pregnancy, a strong and early attachment to mum, and spending time with the baby, talking, reading and singing nursery rhymes. Though it may not be rocket science, most new parents—as I know from recent experience myself—discover that they have a lot to learn. The challenge of hard-to-reach families is even bigger—much bigger. In such families, the parents’ childhoods may not have been good and they may not be very eager to learn about parenting. Reaching out to those parents is key. There is, alas, no silver bullet, but the challenge is at the very heart of this debate.

We know that quality nurseries and child care are key. Economists have long told us that the marginal £1 million or £1 billion would be far more effectively spent in early-years provision than in tertiary education, but the problem is that that is exactly what we have been doing for the last decade. The extensive analysis carried out by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring shows that, even with all the investment in Sure Start children’s centres, the key early predictors of later educational success remained basically stable. We need to think afresh about what is done, how it is done and for whom—how best to reach the hardest to reach.

At school, the importance of the ability to read and communicate cannot be stressed enough. Support for the children who struggle, alongside effective diagnosis of special educational needs, has to be given the highest priority in our education system. If a child cannot read, nothing else in school works and children can rapidly become disengaged. Working with parents does not stop at the end of the foundation years. Indeed, quite a lot of evidence suggests that it is not in school that the gap between the rich kids and the poor kids widens—it is what happens outside school, in the evenings, at the weekends and in the holidays, hence the emphasis in the Knowledge is Power Program schools in the United States on a longer school day, holiday programmes and so on.

There is an apparent correlation across countries between total spend on education and higher levels of social mobility. Education spending in this country pretty much doubled in real terms under the previous Government, which of course brought benefits—I do not deny that for a moment—but did not bring the corresponding increase in life chances for the most disadvantaged. Clearly, however, it is not just about what we spend, but about what we do. Studies consistently show that the quality of the person teaching is vital, which is true at the nursery stage right through to the secondary stage. We also know that extending participation in education at both ends of the scale—in the early years and post-16—tends to improve mobility as well as average attainments.

What is being done, and what can be done? I acknowledge the good things done by the previous Government as well as the great ambitions of the new coalition. Of course, the previous Government did many things with which I did not agree, but sometimes it is good to dwell on those things with which one does agree. I certainly did not doubt their good intentions in the field of education and improving social mobility. Under the previous Government, schools were made more accountable; academies were born; great strides were made to bring fresh talent into teaching; free nursery care provision was extended; and the process of upping the school leaving age to 18 was put in train.

What of the new Government? Ministers care passionately about all children, but it is when they discuss how to improve the life chances for the most disadvantaged that I see them at their most animated. I applaud the key strands of the new Government’s approach. The first includes the extension of free nursery care to disadvantaged two-year-olds; the refocusing of Sure Start; and the Tickell review into the foundation stages and how to narrow the gap between rich and poor. At the other end of the scale, there are the measures to increase the participation age to 18 and enable schools like the KIPP schools in the United States to be formed; the Minister’s Green Paper on special educational needs provision; the doubling of Teach First and the focus on the quality of teaching throughout the education White Paper and the Secretary of State’s programme; and perhaps most of all the pupil premium. In all the debates about funding, the full enormity of this massive structural change sometimes gets overlooked. Schools will now have an active incentive to seek out the most disadvantaged pupils and find space for them, in the knowledge that they will have the additional resources they need.

One could say that at a time of necessary deep spending cuts there are not many easy areas in which to make those cuts. However, there probably are some. In the field of education, it would have been relatively easy to reverse the recent increase in free nursery care from 12.5 hours to 15 hours, and it would have been relatively easy not to proceed with the increase in participation age from 16 to 18. However, I am delighted that those two things were not reversed, and that an additional £300 million has been found for the additional nursery provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds. That is a measure of the coalition’s commitment.

As for further ways forward, we certainly do not start from scratch. There are many great national and local programmes for early years and later on. Home-Start, for example, whose Weywater and Butser branches operate in my constituency, does sterling work. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) and I recently visited Parent Gym, which is a fantastic parenting programme getting great results in south London, as is Save the Children’s families and schools together programme. There is also much to applaud in the nursery sector, and there are brilliant schools and all kinds of fantastic small, local voluntary sector organisations.

There is no shortage of new ideas out there. We will no doubt hear some from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. The hon. Member for Nottingham North is considering others, and the Sutton Trust’s mobility manifesto goes through rigorous cost-benefit analyses. In my view, looking at that in the round, there will be three key enablers to maximising effectiveness. First, the focal point of public debate should move far more into foundation years, questioning how what happens in those formative stages, both in the home and out of it, impacts on life chances for ever. Secondly, we need a new set of metrics for poverty of opportunity as well as in cash terms—the life-chances indicators that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead enumerates. Thirdly, we need a repository of ideas, information and data—the sort of early-intervention foundation that the hon. Member for Nottingham North writes about—that would evaluate what works best and facilitate the sharing of best practice. Those three things—focus, metrics and the sharing of best practice—need to underpin a new approach to improving the life chances of disadvantaged children. Of course, there are many more facets—which, in the interests of time, I will not touch on—including promoting healthy pregnancies; school admissions policies; improving employability and weaving life skills into the curriculum; the role of mentoring and careers advice; mental health issues; the challenges of disability; and specific issues for children in care and those who are themselves young carers. I look forward to a broad debate.

According to the Sutton Trust, the same gaps in key early-years indicators are emerging among the millennium cohort as in the cohort born in the year I was born. This issue remains one of the key unsolved challenges for our society, and therefore for this House. I know it is one that hon. Members in all parts of the House feel strongly about, and rightly so. We also feel a great sense of urgency, because this generation must be the last to suffer the chasm in life chances that comes with the lottery of birth.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and his colleagues on calling this debate. I would also like to remark on the quality of his speech. If my contribution is half as good as his, not only will I be pleased, but the House will be relieved.

Let me begin by reminding the House of the audacious goal that the Labour Government set not only this House, but the nation. They were the first Government to say that, over a 20-year time span, we would abolish child poverty. Whatever one says about the results, they were a Government who tried to will the resources to achieve that objective. In fact, the Government’s consultation document puts the money intended to try to raise the incomes of the poorest families—largely through the tax credits system—at £150 billion. These are huge sums, amounting to £15 billion a year on average, which is the equivalent of 4p on the standard rate of tax. Therefore, the previous Government were immensely serious about trying to achieve that objective.

If we look at the published data, however, we see that the results are modest, if not disappointing. Despite the size of the resources, the number of poor children was reduced, over 10 years, by 600,000. That is of course important for those 600,000 children, but it left 2.8 million still in poverty. In a sense, the figures are the beginnings for our new debate—a debate that we as politicians must now craft, and which the hon. Gentleman opened so well.

That debate is about this question: where do we go from here? Even if we were not beset by the largest structural deficit since the second world war, would we continue with the same strategy as the previous Government?

In particular, the previous Government emphasised the importance of redistributing income. In our debates on the then Child Poverty Bill, I questioned whether it was an adequate strategy by itself. I did so partly because of what I saw in my constituency and what I saw when travelling to other Members’ constituencies: those troubling signs, when children whose parents are not working are late for school; and when no one in the household thinks it is important enough to get themselves up, so that they can then get the children up, to get them washed, dressed, fed and off to school on time. Slowly, I began to question whether money by itself, important though it is, was an adequate strategy to deal with child poverty.

Then, the Prime Minister offered me the opportunity to review poverty and life chances—an offer that I willingly accepted. Two pieces of information—two bits of knowledge—that I came across in undertaking that review knocked me sideways, one of which came from one of the more successful Birkenhead junior schools. The school first came to my notice 20 years ago when parents were not being truthful about where they lived because they wanted to get their children into the school. We might all think that it is wrong to lie, but I felt a sneaking admiration for those parents who, knowing the cards that they had been dealt, felt that getting their children into a good school and giving them a good start was the best thing they could do for them. So that school is not in any way a sink school.

I asked the headmaster to list the skills that he and his teaching staff—and the equivalent staff in other schools—thought necessary if children were to be able fly on their first day. Hardened as I am to some aspects of life, I was staggered by the list of qualities that teaching staff would have liked all children to have. I stress “all children”, because some already have them. For example, he said that it would be important for children starting school to know their own name; to know the word “stop”, because it could be used to avert danger; to be able to take their coat off; to be potty-trained; to be able to hold a crayon; and to be able to sit still. To my mind, this issue clearly went beyond money, no matter how important money is.

The second piece of information was from the national surveys, which are about the only thing from which the hon. Member for East Hampshire did not quote. The work that the university of London has carried out on the cohort studies shows that, perhaps by three years old and certainly by five, life’s race is over for most children. Of course we might be able to make some differences later on, but for most children we have not yet discovered how to change their life chances after the age of five. It seemed to me, therefore, that any review of poverty and life chances needed to concentrate on those crucial early or foundation years. We have called them “foundation years” because it seems that all life’s opportunities are built on them.

The report has two main recommendations. The first is that the Government should build up a series of life chances indicators, nationally and locally, to run alongside the poverty objectives in the Child Poverty Act 2010. The second is that, once those indicators have been put on to the statute book or equivalent, alongside the financial goals relating to dealing with child poverty, the Government should have a different driver for policy. The previous Government were concerned to prevent the numbers of poor children from increasing, and every year, if possible, to find the money to reduce the numbers. That concern suffocated the rest of the debate. One could have forgiven people for not knowing that there were four definitions of poverty on the statute book. The one goal was to move children’s families above 60% of median earnings. I stress that that is important, but I no longer believe that it is necessarily the key criterion with which we should be concerned when considering life chances. We suggested the establishment of the foundation years in order that the Government should have an organisation through which they could drive new policy. That involves the grouping together of all those activities and services that at present go under the title of “early years”. Those early years start long before pregnancy; they start in schools.

The last piece of personal information that I want to give to the House is that I recently spoke to a group of 15-year-olds in a school that I shall be proud to chair when it becomes an academy. I asked them what they most wanted from their school contract. Two of the replies staggered me. One asked whether the school would be able to teach them how to make lifelong friendships, and what the necessary skills would be. All of them wanted to know how to be good parents. They did not say “better parents”. None of them gave any hint that their parents might even once, let alone regularly, have put their own needs before those of their children. It seems to me that if we are to drive policy differently and liberate those whose life chances are now determined by the age of five, we cannot start early enough. The whole culture of a school and what is taught in it about these skills is clearly part of the answer.

I should like to address to those on the Treasury Bench one challenge for the Government. I am lucky in that none of the Sure Start units in my constituency is being cut, reduced or closed, but that is not likely to be true elsewhere. Although the report, which I was privileged to help compile, says that we should not accept Sure Start as it is and that we should turn it upside down so that it much more closely meets the original objective of helping the most disadvantaged families most, it is inconceivable that we can make a go of the foundation years if Sure Start units all over the place are slaughtered.

For reasons that were set out during the election and in the coalition agreement, the Government believe that, wherever possible, power and money should be devolved to local authorities so that they can do as they think best for their area. Local authorities will, of course, be judged by their own local life chances indicators. I hope that the electorate will push for their establishment and measure their local authority’s success in widening life chances—in other words, lifting up those who have the least advantage in our communities.

This programme will not work without some more money. I am not talking about the £150 billion given for redistribution through tax credits, but it is naïve to believe that the Government will be able to make a go of establishing life chances or be able to report progress to the electorate by the end of this Parliament unless they find from somewhere moneys to finance the foundation years more fully—other than from the current budgets allocated. I emphasise again that we are not calling for huge sums. I do not think that we know how to spend huge sums in this area, but some commitment is certainly needed. I hope that when the Government complete their review in March, they will confirm not only that they are going to follow this strategy, but that they will accord it a higher priority than other areas and that, if need be, resources will be shifted from those areas to make the foundation years the driving force to change the life chances of our poorest citizens.

Order. I remind all hon. Members of Mr Speaker’s decision to have an eight-minute limit. The full eight minutes need not be taken up, unless there are many interventions. I hope to be able to call every Member who wants to speak. That is important.

One of the greatest attributes of the British people is their belief in fairness. It is that sense of fairness that supports the notion that whatever one’s starting point in life’s marathon, it does not have to be a personal best for the rest of the race. If people choose to move up the field or even get into the leading pack, they should have the opportunity to do so. To me, that is what social mobility is all about. There are many complicated definitions, but social mobility is fundamentally about an individual’s ability to achieve, to progress and to reach their full potential, whoever they are, wherever they are from, if they choose to do so.

Governments around the world see social mobility as an elusive grail. As a result, numerous policies, initiatives, grants and strategies have been aimed at creating ladders of opportunity and life chances for people. For all that, social mobility has stalled badly during the past 30 years. Different reasons have been advanced to explain that, including not having enough good schools in poor areas and the expansion of university education, which helped richer rather than poorer children. For me, one of the main reasons is that insufficient attention has been paid to boosting self-confidence and self-esteem in our children, which are the prerequisites for aspiration, motivation and success. If we are really serious about improving life chances for children, we must develop that.

Schools and teachers have a key role to play, and they were critical to my own journey. My entire childhood could be described as working class. During those years I had first-hand experience of a lack of money and a lack of opportunity, and I also witnessed the terrible waste that can come with aspirational poverty. At school I was not a natural A-streamer in every subject, and I had an extremely difficult time in many ways and for a number of reasons, but I was touched by certain inspirational teachers who believed in me. Via their words and deeds, they not only provided me with a good education, but boosted my self-confidence and self-esteem.

I shall always remember the words of one sports teacher. When she saw how quickly I could run, she said, “Helen, we had better buy a stopwatch and start training you for the Olympics.” She did buy the watch, and I believed her. Although, sadly, I did not make the Olympics, her positive remark was enough to get me going. Sporting success boosted my self-confidence and self-esteem, and that spilled over into my academic subjects, allowing me to achieve quite good results in everything.

While I acknowledge the importance of formal academic subjects such as those set out in the new EBacc, the importance of confidence-building subjects such as music, art, drama and sport should not be underestimated. More focus should also be given to skills in schools. Children need to feel good about themselves. Not everyone is academic, and perhaps we need to recognise that our goal should not be sameness. Society needs people of all levels and abilities.

A high proportion of young boys in my constituency—some 39% or 40%—have special educational needs and therefore rely heavily on teaching assistants in the classroom, but I fear that, owing to the budgetary situation, teaching assistants may fall by the wayside first. Would the hon. Lady like to say a few words of support for those who work in that profession, and for the good work that they do?

I could not agree more, in many respects. We must support our teachers. They are key and most of them do a fantastic job, but we need to help, and to watch the position carefully.

Everyone has a different level of skill and society needs people who have a different manner and different skills, so perhaps the true goal should be equality of opportunity. Our state boarding schools are hidden gems in our country’s education system. They often head academic league tables, they often outperform the independent sector, and they offer unique life chances to children with potential who may come from difficult backgrounds with limited financial means. At present the Government are rightly keen to extend new boarding accommodation for vulnerable children, and the state boarding school sector supports that move. Vulnerable children can do very well in such an environment, but the transition must take place in the right manner and at the right pace. State boarding schools understand their sector: they know what works and what does not work, and we must listen to them.

I am glad that creating life chances is a priority for the Government. I take considerable heart from initiatives such as the pupil premium, the continuation of Sure Start and the creation of more apprenticeships, because they offer an alternative to the strictures of academia. Notwithstanding the country’s financial difficulties, I hope that those and other measures remain high on the Government’s agenda.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this extremely important and valuable debate. I believe that there is all-party agreement that early intervention in children’s lives is crucial to tackling not just the symptoms but the causes of deprivation, in order to prevent disadvantaged children from becoming disadvantaged adults and prevent cycles of deprivation from being repeated.

We all accept that it is essential to make the right interventions. Both my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) have made that point in their excellent reports. However, the key question is: how do we most effectively achieve such intervention and produce good outcomes?

In an earlier debate, I discussed some of the interventions that I believe can make a difference, such as outreach work with families. The pilot scheme in my constituency to provide early-years education to disadvantaged two-year-olds was extremely successful, and we also had a successful pilot scheme for family nurse partnerships. Both share a similar model: contact with parents; building relationships with those parents; giving them information; and getting them to use other support services to improve the quality of their parenting, which is a key factor in delivering better outcomes for children.

I want to focus today on whether the introduction of the new early intervention grant will help us to safeguard such achievements and move us further towards obtaining the outcomes for disadvantaged children that we all want. The main problems with the EIG are that it is not a specific grant—it is not ring-fenced—and that it represents an 11% cut on its predecessor grants. They, themselves, were cut last year, so the real cut is more like 17% in Government funding to Stockport. The new EIG is not confined to early interventions in children’s lives; it is for early interventions in a number of areas. The EIG will replace funding to a wide variety of 22 other schemes, including everything from the Youth Taskforce to teenage pregnancy programmes, the youth crime plan and young people’s substance misuse services. Those schemes give support to young people in need, but they will now have to compete against each other for resources.

The Government have said that although local authorities will be able to spend money where they want, they will be expected to continue to support Sure Start children’s centres and the free early education places for disadvantaged two-year-olds. Ministers have also reiterated that short breaks for disabled children, support for vulnerable young people, mental health work in schools and support for families with multiple problems should also be priorities. However, it is not mandatory that those services are prioritised, and I fear that there will be a lot of casualties in the local financial tussles for funding up and down the country.

As the Minister will be aware, there is much concern in the early-years sector about the removal of ring-fencing, despite ministerial reassurances that the Government expect to see early-years services protected. People know that, ultimately, without a sanction, the councils can choose to ignore the exhortations of Ministers. The Daycare Trust, the national child care charity, says that many local authorities are already considering diverting funding allocated for early-years provision, leading to the possible closure of Sure Start centres.

I do believe that Ministers have genuinely accepted the arguments about early intervention, and I welcome that. Such a view is supported by the fact that the Government set up the report by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and this week’s report by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North. Both reports call for much more emphasis to be placed on the early years. It would be a shame if, having accepted the principle, Ministers failed to tackle the problem in a way that will make a real difference to the lives of some of the most disadvantaged and deprived families in the country.

As my right hon. Friend said in his recent report on poverty and life chances, which was endorsed by the Prime Minister:

“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.”

It is vital that we continue the valuable work with young children that has been done so far, be it through children’s centres and early-years education, or through outreach work with hard-to-reach families, and that projects and services around the country are not damaged by the change in the funding process from having individual ring-fenced budgets to having one smaller communal pot of money, which has to be fought over locally.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful and thoughtful speech. I wonder where she feels savings could be made elsewhere within the educational budget in order to prioritise early-years provision. I hope that Sure Start’s increased focus on the most vulnerable children, albeit with a reduced budget overall, can still deliver more of the benefit that we were originally seeking. Perhaps she, like the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), would accept larger class sizes as the price for getting more money into early intervention. These are the choices that we need to make. I wonder whether she has any thoughts on that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but the point that I am making is about the difficulty when ring-fencing is removed from grants from central Government to local government. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify what processes are in place to ensure that we monitor how much money continues to be spent on early-years intervention as the mixed picture of how local councils choose to spend the early intervention grant emerges.

I would also be grateful for clarification about what monitoring procedures will be put in place to evaluate the effectiveness of the money spent in terms of outcomes for disadvantaged children. I can foresee two years from now a parliamentary question asking for information about early-years intervention receiving the reply, “The information is not kept centrally.” Without central monitoring, it is difficult for hon. Members to hold the Government to account for their stated policies.

Targets and some external assessments of local authorities are being abolished, so how will the Government monitor whether their emphasis on the importance of early-years intervention is shared by cash-strapped councils in the face of priorities set by a local electorate that might not be the same as those of the Government? The pressure on local councillors might be to maintain parks and street lighting and to keep roads and pavements in good repair. They have to be responsive to the needs of their electorate and early-years intervention might not be a priority for local people.

The Government have emphasised the importance they give to early years, but the chosen commissioners are councils so how, without statutory guidance and without ring-fencing, will the Government ensure that councils deliver on the coalition’s commitment to early interventions in children’s lives?

While I have the opportunity, I want to draw attention briefly to another disadvantaged group—children in care homes. They are the children who would have benefited from early intervention in their lives. As the chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, I am particularly concerned about the number of children who run away from care homes. I was shocked when I discovered that more than half the children reported missing in Greater Manchester are from children’s homes in Stockport. This is concerning, as research shows that children who run away are at serious risk, exposed to violence, criminality, substance abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Over the years, I have expressed much concern about the need to improve Ofsted’s inspection reports so that they reflect the numbers of children who go missing from care homes. We are awaiting the new national minimum standards for children’s homes, which I hope will tackle the issue. I am disappointed that the timetable for the publication of the new standards keeps slipping. In a parliamentary written answer in July last year, I was told the revised standards would be ready in November 2010. When they did not appear, I tabled another question and was told they would be ready “early in 2011”. I hope that the new standards will be published as soon as possible and will include in the inspections of children’s homes consideration of how those homes manage children who go missing to ensure that the highest quality of care and control is provided.

In conclusion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said in his report about the importance of early intervention policies and programmes:

“The rationale is simple: many of the costly and damaging social problems in society are created because we are not giving children the right type of support in their earliest years, when they should achieve their most rapid development. If we do not provide that help early enough, then it is often too late”.

His words must not go unheeded.

I, too, begin my speech by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing the debate. For many of us, a motivation in coming to this place and standing for public service was the wish to discuss such issues as improving the life chances for disadvantaged children. I certainly speak for myself in that regard.

It is perhaps important that I declare an interest. For the last 10 years, I have been working as a family lawyer, specialising in child protection. I want to mention the prospects and difficulties faced by those children, in particular, in my speech. I also want to thank my hon. Friend for his impeccable timing. We have the benefit of the very important contribution made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and the written paper that he has prepared. Just yesterday, we had the report from the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on early intervention. There is also the background, since the formation of the coalition Government, of the report that Professor Eileen Munro has been asked to prepare on the challenges faced by social workers and those working in child protection at this difficult time.

My work experience leads me to observe that the current evidence and reports into early-years development are the key to improving life chances for disadvantaged children. I shall expand on that by giving some insight into the care proceedings that some children have to go through and the impact of that on the families involved. First, however, I want to mention the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who has shown leadership and expertise in raising the issue of outcomes for looked-after children. His all-party group on looked-after children and care leavers is now looking into outcomes for looked- after children, particularly the concerns about the disproportionately lower educational and other outcomes for such children. I am confident that the work undertaken in that regard will feature in and add to the broader debate we are having about outcomes for disadvantaged children.

Many hon. Members might be aware that if a child’s future and life ever become the subject of a court case, they are likely to have suffered a range of abuses and harms, including physical, sexual and emotional harm and neglect. Sadly, there is often a mixture of all or some of those elements. I have read many statements and reports that will stay with me for many years, such as accounts of children who have been so neglected and so deprived of basic nutrition, food and drink that when they arrive in foster care, they automatically go up to the bathroom to try to get water from the toilet bowl. They might smear faeces due to psychological concerns. I remember a case years ago of a child whose feet had been forced into shoes so small for such a long time that if anyone, including a doctor, tried to relieve the child’s pain or go near their feet to treat them, the child would be very distressed and traumatised. Those examples give a tiny insight into the many tragic cases and reports that I have come across over the years.

I should like to highlight the particular challenges faced by social workers, particularly front-line workers. We already have some indications from the Munro review. I shall not dwell on that for long, but I support Professor Munro’s preliminary observations. This issue is not about targets or paperwork; we are talking about professionals who are trying their best. They need as much support as possible and a structure that will enable them to be out helping children and exercising their judgment about those children’s future prospects rather than filling in reports and filing paperwork.

Let me deal briefly also with the difficulties that local authorities have in placing children into foster care. The situation around the country is variable but there can be shortages in foster care placements. That feeds into the concerns raised in the report of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. The early years are crucial, and disruption and continual placement moves can have a serious impact on children’s, particularly young children’s, development and ability to form attachments and important relationships with adults.

The court process is bewildering and challenging for anyone, even before one has factored in the addictions that the parents and young people involved might be troubled with. They might have limited cognitive functioning or learning difficulties or they might lack a support network. I remember the case of a young mother who had struggled in a relationship of domestic violence; when she was asked if there was anyone she could stay with or who could help, her answer was simply, “No.” I think of many of my friends and family with young children who are not in poverty and have a good support network, but they struggle with young babies, so one can only imagine how difficult it is for young mothers in a very different scenario.

Safeguarding children is ultimately the concern of the courts, and that has to come before anything else, but court proceedings can be lengthy. There are always difficulties in securing court dates, experts, advocates and judges. For a child who goes into foster care at one, proceedings might still be under way when the child approaches their second birthday. Even I can work out that nearly 50% of that young child’s life has been spent in a court process. Again, that brings me back to the contribution of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, and the concerns about the impact of that process on young children.

Drug and alcohol abuse feature more frequently than any of us would wish and there are difficulties with mental health provision. I look forward to a response from the Minister this afternoon as to how we can more clearly join up facilities and support for parents and for the children who need mental health support.

The mental health issue is incredibly important. Does my hon. Friend agree that one problem in the education system at the moment is that many school teachers are not properly trained to recognise mental health problems in pupils? It is often too easy to dismiss such problems as bad or difficult behaviour. We must include such training in the teacher training process.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Again, this is about working across departments and professions. There has already been a good move towards that, but any further support for school teachers and health visitors, working together with social services, will always improve the outcomes for young children.

I welcome the reports on early intervention and the early years, and the progress that has been made as a result of the Munro review, and I urge the Government to consider the national parenting campaign in more detail. I also welcome some of the steps taken by the coalition Government, such as the pupil premium.

My constituency is lucky to have an excellent Home-Start in Ilkeston, and we have great Sure Start centres. They work incredibly hard and I urge local authorities and those in Government, while there is a real momentum, to implement early intervention, and look at how we can all work together in the longer term to improve the outcomes for such disadvantaged children.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on obtaining this important debate. I speak as someone who grew up with a rural, working-class and relatively average background, and as the father of three children. My parents, like all parents, wanted the best for me, and I want the best for my children. I imagine that all hon. Members, from whatever party, would share that wish for succeeding generations. That is why it is welcome to see that the Government plan to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children at a very early age before they start school. I agree that the nought to five age group, which has been dubbed the foundation years, should be put on an equal footing with primary and secondary schooling

But we have to face up to certain realities. This is not simply about throwing money at a problem. Other crucial issues are involved. Neither can we take the approach that it does not require financial investment by Government. I fear that too often in the past an emphasis has been placed on financial intervention, Government expenditure and statistics on a page. We have created a culture of benefit dependency that has become generational, passed down from parent to child.

Have we really failed when it comes to education? We have emphasised the number of young people who go to university, regardless of the fact that far too many leave with degrees that are utterly useless when it comes to finding a job in the real world. I am reminded of a media studies course once offered at Staffordshire university that included a module on David Beckham. As Members can tell, that would hold little attraction for me, but I am sure that some people might be interested in studying David Beckham’s different hair cuts. How does that help young people achieve a better future and better life prospects?

For that reason, I welcome the fact that the Government have acknowledged that the children of adults with few opportunities in the labour market are at risk of growing up with the same disadvantages, perpetuating the poverty cycle for a new generation. I also welcome the fact that the Government have said that they will focus on reducing the factors that lead to

“disadvantaged children… gaining fewer qualifications”,

which leads to

“a widening gap in employment outcomes in later life.”

However, those must be the right kind of qualifications that actually offer the prospect of employment.

We have had too casual an attitude to the benefits of marriage and family. As a nation, we have almost made it a crusade to tell everyone that just about any kind of family unit is equal to every other. It is rather like a school sports day at which everyone wins and nobody loses. Everyone is told that they have done so well and they all get a prize. That simply does not work, and we should not regard the drift away from the traditional idea of family to be a badge of honour.

It is important that incomes continue to rise, and it is right that prospects increase along with standards of living. In terms of health, life expectancy and social mobility, it is vital that we continue to drive the economy forward and invest in our future, but we must also address the areas that have been neglected or actively under political assault in recent years. We cannot ignore the importance of family. It is more than just a word, a catchphrase or a political gimmick. A child’s life prospects are increased in a stable family with two parents who set out clear boundaries for acceptable behaviour and teach them proper social skills and interaction. Some people might point out that many young people are not growing up in such an environment and need to be assisted, and I entirely agree. However, it must also be pointed out that many of those young people will eventually be in relationships and will become parents. Are we simply to repeat the cycle all over again?

It is not simply about finances and budgets, but nor can we ignore the financial issues. I agreed with the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who has responsibility for children, when she said on 21 December that

“the fact that 2.8 million children in the UK live in poverty is a scandal.”

Who could argue with that? I cannot, however, agree with the comments that followed. She said:

“The best way to eradicate child poverty is to address the causes of poverty, rather than treat only the symptoms.”

It should not be a choice between treating the causes or the symptoms. Rather, it should be about doing everything possible to treat both. I note the comments made by the former Children’s Commissioner for England, who warned of the dangers of the planned cuts. I also note the concerns raised about pupil premiums, the size of the available budget and the question of new money.

We must get to the core of the matter: social mobility. However, it must be considered not on its own, but alongside family stability, personal discipline, personal responsibility and a set of principles or—dare I say it in this House—a moral compass. That must be an element of any new approach. We hear much about the big society and there is now something of a scramble to claim to be the champions of it. The evidence we have seen with our own eyes day in, day out overwhelmingly tells of the failure of recent years and the breakdown in family and community that follows in its wake. The so-called big society, which all the main parties now seem to want to espouse, can be built on only the smallest building blocks of any society, namely the individual and the family. We must not treat the causes and simply ignore the symptoms, so finances are important, but neither should we try, as others have in the past, to treat the symptoms without finally deciding as a people and as a Parliament to tackle the underlying causes.

Hon. Members have highlighted the importance of ensuring that we improve the life chances of children growing up in underprivileged circumstances. This is a timely and important debate, and I am glad to be able to contribute.

I shall highlight two issues. First, we should recognise, encourage and support the good work that already takes place in local communities to help parents nurture and care for their children. Secondly, we should recognise the importance of stable parental relationships in the life of a child.

Whatever people say about our society today, I know from the immense amount of community work in my constituency that there is really good work out there. Home-Start East Cheshire, part of the Home-Start network that has already been mentioned, is one such excellent example. Volunteer youth workers do detached work on the streets and on deprived estates; grandparents care for grandchildren so that parents can hold down one or even two jobs; and women organise mums and tots groups at the local churches to provide mums—and dads—with a morning’s precious breather and a chat.

I recognise, however, that the level of volunteering is lower in deprived areas, and we should seek to address that important challenge.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the importance of voluntary organisations and their work to support disadvantaged families. Does she agree that the Government need to tackle urgently the problems with the Criminal Records Bureau checks that need to be made before people can volunteer? Would it not be a good idea if, for example in my constituency, we had a Cornwall volunteers card, with an annual check? People who volunteer—often for several groups in their community—could have an annual check and be enabled and supported in their volunteering.

I do so agree. In fact, that was the subject of my very first question in the House, some months ago, and I look forward eagerly to hearing the Government’s response to the idea of such a scheme being put into action. I thank my hon. Friend for raising it again; that is a timely reminder.

As the mother of two teenage boys with the benefit of a supportive wider family, I want to promote and encourage the role of parents and grandparents in helping children to grow up to be all that they can be. In the report by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), I welcome his statement:

“We imperil the country’s future if we forget that it is the aspirations and actions of parents which are critical to how well their children prosper.”

He is absolutely right. Children flourish with support and encouragement from the care giver or care givers with whom they have, ideally, a long-term, stable and loving relationship. So do parents.

If parents never had continuing close care and nurture as they grew up, or the example and experience in their lives of caring parents, how difficult it must be for them to be good parents themselves. We have to address that key issue. How can we break the inter-generational cycle of poverty in families where parents themselves have not had a good parenting model?

My hon. Friend talks about absences in young people’s lives. I am particularly concerned about young boys, who are often brought up in families with no male role models. They turn up at primary school, where more than eight out of 10 teachers are now women rather than men, and they lack the male role models in life to ensure that, as they grow up, they can learn how to behave as a man, as a father and as a supporter of their own family.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that I shall reflect on later when I talk about the importance of strengthening relationships between parents.

Teaching parenting and relationship skills in schools is part of the solution, so that people really understand what it means to enter into a committed relationship. Some of the best support and encouragement for those without such a role model or family support comes from the local community—from people who are known and trusted, who are willing to be a friend to others, and who are willing to give that most precious commodity, time, and to give it continuously over a period.

In his review, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead recommends that local authorities should aim to make children’s centres a hub for the local community. In some areas where there are no existing community centres and a low level of community engagement, that is to be commended. However, it is important not to overlook the good work that already goes on in communities where organic hubs exist in churches, schools, community groups, and even homes, often with little or no financial support from the state. Before precious public funds are incurred in setting up new hubs—I know from my experience as a councillor how expensive they are—I suggest that every local authority that has not already done so should undertake a comprehensive audit of what voluntary work, including caring work, is already happening in their area, often at a highly dedicated and professional level in local communities, so that we can build on what already exists.

As a local councillor in my previous constituency, we did just that, and we discovered an enormous amount of voluntary and community work of which the local authority was previously completely unaware. I remember the portfolio holder for community services saying to me, “I had no idea so much community work existed.” Having been discovered, these groups were able to receive additional support from the local authority, giving them the potential to flourish to an even greater degree. I think, for example, of the group called Active Hope led by an inspirational young teacher who goes into schools in disadvantaged areas to help to build children’s confidence and esteem through outdoor activities. His work was highlighted through just such an audit, and it is now very much in demand across the town.

Parents and their relationships need support. As the independent review produced by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead has shown, the problems of child poverty are not just related to money, although that is, as we have acknowledged, an important factor. Child poverty is about more than money. Without wanting to detract in any way from the valued and courageous work that single parents do to bring up their children—my own brother is one such—I want to stress the importance of supporting parents to build strong relationships between themselves so that they, in turn, can support each other and nurture their children together.

One of the most important determinants of the quality of parenting is the relationship between parents. It is vital to help young people to develop not only parenting skills but relationship skills between themselves. As someone who has run a community law firm for some 20 years, I have seen over that time how relationships between those who have come to us for a divorce have been breaking down at an increasingly early stage. It grieves me to see how often tiny children accompany their parents into our reception. Hon. Members might be saddened to hear that the youngest marriage we were ever asked to act on for a divorce was one in which the couple had had an argument at the wedding reception. It would be helpful for many young people to learn what it means to enter into a committed relationship, particularly when they have not witnessed it in their own family lives.

If we want to increase the life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, we should support and strengthen family relationships, including marriage. A Government report published in May 2010 entitled, “State of the nation report: poverty, worklessness and welfare dependency in the UK” stated:

“Around 3 million children in the UK have experienced the separation of their parents. This is partly attributable to a rise in cohabitation, given the increased likelihood of break-up for cohabiting couples relative to married couples. Approximately one in three of those parents cohabiting at birth will separate before the child is five years old, compared with 1 in 10 married parents.”

It is important to reflect on those statistics, and to support and encourage those, like my brother, who find themselves in the situation of being a single parent. It behoves us all to support them as part of the wider community.

Good parenting can, I believe, be learned; so, I believe, can good relationships. We can break the cycle of deprivation that is caused, in part, by a lack of role models in both areas. Parents are vital to the health and welfare of their children, as are their relationships, and we should support them.

I join right hon. and hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this important and welcome debate. I also join colleagues in welcoming the reports of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), which was published yesterday. I could not agree more with them, nor with hon. Members’ remarks this afternoon, on the crucial importance of the early years. It is good to see this subject receiving so much attention, not only in those reports, but in other reports that have been published in recent weeks. This week, the charity Family Action published “Born Broke”, and just before Christmas, we had the important UNICEF report “The children left behind”.

I warmly welcome and strongly endorse many of the suggestions in the reports of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North. It is absolutely right that we need to be proactive in addressing the needs of disadvantaged children, and that we should intervene early. It is absolutely right that what happens in the home affects what happens at school. It is right that we should secure access to quality services and programmes for children and families, and I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead has said about the importance of putting children’s centres at the heart of the support that we offer disadvantaged children and their families. I welcome the proposal for local child poverty commissions. It is right and sensible that we track a range of outcome indicators so that we can ensure that children improve their life chances across the spectrum of outcomes.

The early years are crucial, but investing in them will not be enough on its own. We need to sustain the investment right through the child’s life, otherwise the good effects of the additional investment in the early years will fade. I am concerned that we must keep our attention on addressing income poverty and inequality. There is so much evidence that adequate family incomes are crucial to children’s outcomes. The UNICEF report that I mentioned highlights that the UK suffers from relatively poor outcomes across a range of indicators compared with other countries. That relates to our position at the lower end of the inequality spectrum. Our children are raised in a much more unequal country than those with more successful child outcomes.

Money is important, as right hon. and hon. Members have said, and it is actually quite easy to understand why—it is about what money can buy. Parents who cannot afford the rent on decent housing will find it difficult to provide a quiet space for children to do homework. It may also mean that they are forced into overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation, where children cannot grow up safe and healthy. The lack of an adequate income to afford a decent diet will harm children’s health and well-being and limit their ability to learn. Poorer families lack the means to ensure that their children can participate fully in their schooling and education. They may not be able to participate in extra-curricular activities or secure the equipment, books and computers that would help to improve their learning.

Parents who are forced to take a series of inadequately paid and unstable short-term jobs will find it difficult to secure adequate income from employment. If we are interested in improving children’s outcomes, we have to improve family income, too. Money is not separate from what enables children to do well; it is integral to their success. A continuing policy of income redistribution must therefore be at the heart of our strategy for improving children’s outcomes.

I wish to say a little about the provision of services for parents and children who face particular disadvantages and have a high level of need. As Family Action has stated in the report to which I referred earlier, the best solution for most children is to keep them with their families and support those families to do their best in bringing up their kids. Poor parenting and poverty are not necessarily linked. In the vast majority of cases, poor parents are as desperate as any others to do the very best for their children and to provide them with a loving family background and a stable home life.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady, and I should like to share an experience with her. When I was about to be a father for the first time, I went to parental classes on childbirth and on how I could help my wife in the first few weeks afterwards, and things that I could do physically to help. Perhaps it was a missed opportunity that there was no explanation for new fathers and mothers of what they could do to bring up their child well and do the most positive things possible for them. The classes were about the health and well-being of the child in the early weeks and months, not about how to be a good parent. Perhaps we should introduce lessons involving such matters for new fathers and mothers.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion, which covers a number of important points. The first is the importance of fathers in raising children and improving child outcomes, and of the support that we can give families, whatever their structure, to ensure that both parents remain engaged in their children’s lives.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman hints at the important point that universal provision for all people who become parents—not just the poorest—provides us with a crucial opportunity to improve the way in which they are equipped and given the confidence to raise happy, successful kids. He is right also to say that parenting and the ability to parent well go much further than simply providing materially for children and providing them with good physical health and circumstances. They are also about emotional, educational and social support, all of which should sit within programmes of support for new parents. I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

As I said, we should do everything we can to enable parents to bring up their children successfully in the context of family life. It is therefore particularly important that we give extra attention to services such as Family Action’s Building Bridges service, which works with parents in the home to enable them to keep their kids with them and ensures that they are properly supported to do what they want to do—raise successful children. I am wary of an over-emphasis on care settings and taking children out of the family home, which we should avoid wherever possible. The worst outcomes are for our looked-after children, and we should do everything we can to minimise the number of children who end up in state care.

We all take on board the hon. Lady’s comments, given her long record in this area. I am delighted to hear her say that she sees an equal role for fathers and mothers in bringing up children. Does she agree with a presumption of equality of access between fathers and mothers in the event of separation, rather than the current presumption, which too often means fathers dropping out of children’s lives altogether?

The presumption at the moment is that the child’s best interests must be paramount, which I continue to support. Of course, in the majority of cases, we would want to secure contact with both parents after separation. However, the starting point should not be the interests and wishes of the parent; the best interests of the child must remain paramount. I hope that there will be no deviating from that valuable and valid principle in the Children Act 1989.

Let me conclude by addressing one or two of the suggestions made in the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North. I am disappointed that he is not here this afternoon to hear the many compliments that his work certainly deserves. I was pleased that he wrote of the need to intervene early and to sustain that intervention and support. His suggestions for private funding to support our children and the families who raise them are interesting and imaginative, but I hope they will not be used to let the Government off the hook. At this time, when so many of the voluntary agencies that have done so much to support our most vulnerable families are struggling to maintain their finances and when they are concerned about their financial future—they face uncertainty perhaps as soon as the beginning as the next financial year—it is important that we underwrite with financial support what is needed to raise happy, successful and healthy children. That is the responsibility of all of us: the country, the state and the Government cannot abdicate it.

No—I am just concluding, although I am always willing to hear the interesting and useful suggestions of my co-vice chair of the all-party group on children.

I greatly welcome this debate and the reports that have informed us in recent weeks, and the many interesting, important and imaginative ideas that we have heard. Raising our children cannot and should not be done on the cheap. They are our most important priority. They are our future. Whatever the pressures on the public finances, our children must be the priority. They deserve the best.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this debate.

The best way to improve life chances for disadvantaged children is to address the causes of child poverty and disadvantage rather than simply treating the short-term symptoms. It is safe to say that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree with that, and with the goal of ending child poverty by 2020. That must be achieved but, as we all know, huge burdens will continue to be placed on families as the task of eradicating our country’s financial crisis continues. That could have a huge effect on increasing child poverty, especially in workless households. We must therefore ensure that getting people into and back into work is at the top of our Government’s agenda.

As a constituency MP who knows only too well the devastating effects of unemployment on children, I look forward to the coalition Government’s reforms of the benefit system, and in particular to the Work programme proposals. I also look forward to the spring, when the Government will produce their new child poverty strategy. Lord Hill has announced that there will be a range of policies to help to eradicate child poverty.

A range of policies to start the process of attacking child poverty has already been announced. The £2.5 billion pupil premium that will give disadvantaged children the resources they need to succeed in school and beyond has already been mentioned. Investment in early years and safeguarding education will bring long-term benefits not only to the child but to the state in future years. Let us also not forget the 15 hours of free child care per week for all disadvantaged two-year-olds, to name but a few of those initiatives. As we know, the Government also commissioned the two excellent reports from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who both considered early intervention. Both reports highlight the dire need for early intervention through child care and education. There will also be a great role for Sure Start, once it is refocused, to support the most vulnerable families.

Bearing in mind the intergenerational—and multi-generational—nature of the poverty described so well in the reports, does my hon. Friend agree that in the Sure Start centres, schools and nursery provision many of the parents struggle with literacy and numeracy and were not parented well themselves, so they might not know how to support their children in those good communication skills that are so vital to their academic achievement post-five?

It has been widely established that the best way to way to treat early causes is before birth, and the Sure Start centres will be a great way to enhance that process in the future.

The third report that I want to highlight today is the one commissioned from Professor Eileen Munro, which is a review of children’s social work and front-line child protection practice. As with the other two reports, in her initial report Professor Munro has started to expose the underlying causes of what has gone wrong in child protection. This brings me on to the group of disadvantaged children who are often overlooked and fall beneath the radar—looked-after children. Of this cohort, only 7% go to university. A whopping percentage of those in prison have had some dealings with the care system during their lives. Life chances through employment are also very low in comparison with those for children who are not in care. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, there is also a premium on wages later in life.

The previous Government moved the figures for university attendance from 1% to 7%—a great achievement but, sadly, not enough. The new Government need to do more to give those children, who have had a diabolical start in life, a better outcome. The status quo is unacceptable. The results from the Munro review will, we hope, start to address some of the underlying causes and early interventions needed. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) is no longer in his place—[Interruption.] I am sorry: he is back. That will teach me to keep my head down. So I can inform him that there is a role, as part of the big society, for individual communities, voluntary groups and charities to help to enhance the life chances of all our young people, over and above the roles of local authorities and the Government.

We have heard already from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) about the many things that have happened in communities across the country, but I want to tell the House what happens locally in the Calder Valley. We have identified three key areas where, as part of the big society, we can help to enhance the life chances of our looked-after children. When many young children come into care, we find that they have never had the opportunity to learn or develop creative skills. Some of them have never had a chance to draw or even glue things together, as we did with “Blue Peter”. Children’s reading skills double between the ages of 7 and 8, but many children who come into care have never even read a book. One other area where a difference can be made is by helping children in care and their carers, who often do not have the experience either, in supporting and signposting at the key educational milestones in the children’s lives.

The House may recall from my maiden speech—because, after all, it was so memorable—that I pledged to support looked-after children by facilitating the setting up of a local charity in the Calder Valley to enhance the life chances of that group of disadvantaged children. I can happily report to the House that the launch date of our charity is in April, and the trustees have agreed to host and fund those projects, which will help to address those three key areas I have spoken about. That is a tangible way in which communities can help to address some of the root causes that set those children at a disadvantage at the outset of their lives. It is a small start, but hopefully the Field, Allen and Munro reports will act as catalysts so that through the new Government’s policies we can start to sort out some of the root causes of child poverty and disadvantage.

When I was first elected to the House and we talked about educational achievement, the conversation was nearly always about A-levels and universities. One of the great things about the Government of whom I was pleased to be member was that we shifted the debate from educational achievement by young adults to one about educational achievement at the beginning of education—children learning to read, for example. What is wonderful about today’s debate is the focus on the very beginnings of education and children at the stage when they are learning to talk and listen. These basic skills are the building blocks of our personalities and future abilities to cope with the world.

May I also draw attention to the fact that, not only has there been this wonderful change, but it must be the first Parliament in which more Members want to debate this than the horse racing levy? [Laughter.]

The laughter following that remark shows that my right hon. Friend is supported in his view. It is a positive shift. My suspicion is that it reflects the greater participation of mothers in politics—but I will not push that point too far! We know that disadvantage starts earlier, well before school, and unfortunately gets worse during formal education. Despite the efforts of the previous Government, which I helped with, the gaps in achievement remain stubbornly wide, although we managed to narrow them in some respects. At five, 35% of children who qualify for free school meals achieve a good level of development, compared with 55% of children who do not qualify. The children on free school meals are more likely to be bullied, twice as likely to be permanently excluded, half as likely to get good GCSEs and, despite progress, less likely to go to university.

We need to make it clear that disadvantage is directly associated with poverty in education. There is a further disadvantage, however, to do with boys. The second lowest achieving group of pupils in schools are white British boys. They are exceeded only by Gypsies and Travellers. People have said that it might be because there are too few male teachers in primary schools. As someone who used to educate primary school teachers, I think it is partly because too few young men are interested in small children, and therefore have the skills and qualities that would make someone like me, interviewing students for teacher education courses, consider them capable of becoming good teachers. Perhaps it tells us something about how we bring up young men that they do not know enough about the lives of children.

Does the hon. Lady think that, unfortunately, our society is suspicious of men who are interested in getting involved with and supporting young children? Indeed, some men might feel that they are making themselves vulnerable if they decide to volunteer to work with young people.

In my view, the red top newspapers have created that approach much too much. If men had more experience of the lives of children, they would be robust and resilient to those unfounded accusations.

Most speakers in this debate have called for effective early intervention to tackle such inequality. I would strongly urge us to draw on good evidence of what works. For example, in my constituency a family nurse partnership working with teenage mothers has gathered powerful evidence of how it has helped young women not only to bring up their children but to take up education opportunities and build successful and happy lives. We know from research by the HighScope Perry project in America that a structured, play-based early curriculum can make a huge difference to children. I am sad that cuts in child care tax credits will mean that fewer parents will be able to afford access to high-quality provision for their children, despite welcome additional early-years provision for some of the poorest two-year-olds.

Unfortunately, we tend to grab on to things in politics that we think will be popular where there is not necessarily the evidence to sustain them. Our Government were occasionally guilty of that, and the current Government’s proposed marriage premium is also an example. It will skew income distribution to those who are more prosperous and from those who are less prosperous. However, one of the things that we need in this debate is really good evidence. The last time we had a Tory-led Government, they stopped the cohort studies, which tracked the progress of children and young people every seven years, and we now have two cohorts missing. I would strongly urge those on the Treasury Bench to do what they can in this era of cuts to ensure that that mistake is not repeated. Unless we have good quality evidence about what works, we will carry on making mistakes.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the important issue of tracking and research. I, too, would ask those on the Treasury Bench to respond to that point, because it is important that we sustain such tracking. It is not good enough to look too early at how a particular cohort of children is performing. The advantage of cohort studies is that we can track people all through their lives.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, although I will not take any more, because they are now beginning to eat into my time. We need good quality evidence. If we do not have it, the odds are that we will make more mistakes. There will be debates in Government about such matters, and although investing in a cohort study is not very sexy, I would strongly urge those Ministers in the Chamber to do what they can to ensure that such evidence is collected.

I want to be brief and talk about the things that need to happen. We know that it is not just teachers who make a difference to children—many Members have spoken about the contribution that parents make—because their peers make a difference too. That is one of the reasons why poor children in prosperous areas overachieve compared with poor children in poorer areas by a factor of 18%. That is why I have some suspicions about the much-trumpeted pupil premium, which does not take into account the fact that poor children in prosperous areas already do much better than those in poorer areas. I would also strongly echo the support that others have given to parenting education. We introduced quite a lot of parenting education, but, unfortunately, the people in my constituency who got most of it were, to be brutal, those who were in trouble with the law or whose children were in trouble with the law. Those people found parenting education quite transformative, as did the parents whose children went to a Catholic infant school in my constituency that offered it. I strongly believe that parenting education can make a huge difference.

Other Members have referred to the problems of children in care. I cannot compete with Members who talked about the poverty of their childhood—mine was very prosperous—but I remember well how shocked I was at how few things, such as books, CDs and clothes, children in care possessed.

I want to mention one more way in which the Government could make a real difference to disadvantaged children. Most of my educational advantages and most of the things I learned were the result of being able to read. I got into books and I discovered whole new worlds that would otherwise have been completely beyond me. When I went to university to do English, I remember asking one of my fellow students what she had read as a child. I was shocked when she said that she had read The Beano, and that was it—yet she had managed to get to university.

Children can transform their lives through books. One of the most depressing pieces of news that I heard recently was the decision to axe the Booktrust. It has a scheme that gives books to babies and gives every mum a book bag. My constituency is full of mothers who do not read English, and for them those books are transformative. They mean that their children can go into school knowing at which end of a book to begin reading. Members of Muslim families might be readers, but their books are often in Arabic, and start at the back. I urge Ministers to do what they can to revive the Booktrust scheme.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this debate, and I hope that they will pay attention to what he says later, because he has more ideas on how to progress this matter, which is key to many of us across the House. I shall try to keep to his principle of seeing this as a cross-party effort. As an ex-teacher, I have learned lessons today from legal experts and about early intervention.

I want to talk about an aspect of disadvantage that has not been mentioned yet. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) in her place, because she has fought for this for a number of years. We talk about poverty, but there is also disadvantage in regard to race and culture. Year in, year out, she has gone on about the underperformance of black boys in particular, but, after all this time, there is still underperformance among children of Pakistani, Bengali and Kurdish origin. I do not know how many reports on that subject have come through the system.

As I said, I am an ex-history teacher, and it might seem that I am giving the House a history lesson, although I hope that things can be learned from history. My speech might bring back reminiscences of an old history teacher. I want to say something about my experience. I do not think there is anyone here who cannot think back to either a teacher or a school that made a difference to them. I support the Secretary of State when he said that

“our schools should be engines of social mobility”.

After 27 years in teaching, I passionately believe that to be the case. I went to a grammar school, and before Members raise their eyes to the ceiling, let me assure them that I am not going to give them a lecture about bringing back grammar schools across the country. My constituency does, however, have the advantage of having the very successful Lancaster royal grammar school for boys and Lancaster girls’ grammar school, which I shall say more about later.

I have 27 years’ experience of teaching in comprehensives, 25 of them in social priority schools. The lessons that I have learned apply to Governments of all persuasions, because they are all tempted to take certain actions. Comprehensives were supposed to be the vehicle for raising social mobility. When I started teaching in them, I was told that they would be the grammar schools for everyone. Then, certain schemes were introduced, including mixed-ability classes and special needs. Then we had special needs teaching in the classroom, and special needs teaching outside it. Then came integrated studies, environmental studies and humanities.

Often, more than 50% of the children whom professionals in those schools were dealing with were entitled to free school meals. Often, for more than 50% of them English was a second language. That is still the case in some of those schools today, although that has not yet been mentioned. Those factors existed alongside all the other problems that hon. Members have pointed out. Every few years, a Government scheme would be introduced in which the teacher was taken out of the classroom and trained to do something new. Any teacher dealing with circumstances of disadvantage will say that the key thing is how much stability, security and aspiration can be given to those children. Why is it that the most way-out education experiments are always done for the lowest achievers and the most disadvantaged?

It is precisely this issue of having initiative after initiative after initiative that we must end. One particularly damaging example from recent years, given the important role teachers can play in young people’s lives, was hiving off the pastoral role of teachers to other people working in schools. That left teachers simply to deliver the curriculum, never to nurture the children. This provides another example of the constant “initiativitis” from which we must move.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is always the schools undergoing initiatives that need the greatest stability. That is why I welcome the Secretary of State’s reform of the national curriculum, which will put real history and geography back into it. When those schools attained the achievement and stability they wanted and lifted their pupils A to C grades, they faced another problem. When the students left the school or entered university, the subjects they had studied were not counted as equal to other subjects learned in the more advantaged schools. This happened for the best of intentions, but it amounted to underselling. In my experience, however, with security, good teaching and, particularly, a good head teacher, there is nothing those children cannot achieve. They can match anybody and should be given the right to do so. That means having the right to learn the same subjects that are taught in the best schools. That would provide a level playing field and support could be continued through the system.

I want to give Ministers a case study from Lancaster. In 2003, with the best intentions, the previous Government set up an excellent cluster in Lancashire that linked the primary schools—Bowerham, Dallas Road, Willow Lane, Ridge and Moorside—with the following secondary schools: the Central Lancaster High school, Lancaster Royal Boys’ grammar, Lancaster Girls’ grammar and nine other schools in Morecambe. Teachers had to apply to participate in the initiative, which was conducted under a programme called “Excellence in Cities”, combined with another called the behaviour improvement programme. Civil servants draw up these initiatives, but teachers have to deal with the applications. What this achieved for those schools was, I think, roughly £1 million extra a year, which went to providing learning mentors.

The scheme was abolished in 2008—after just five years. After a few years, the Government no longer even measured the success of the scheme, but it can be measured. Performance at key stage 2 consistently went up year on year above the county average, while exclusions went down far below the county average—and there were some tough primary schools in this cohort. Attendance was also above the county average. Despite the achievements, it was stopped. We were told that the money was being moved to the school development grant. The poor heads were told that they had to reapply to go through the new system, which they did successfully. If we move to the present, we find that the school development grant has been amalgamated into the general schools grant. A successful system, therefore, which stopped being measured—except by the schools—has been moved, moved and moved again by all Governments.

I believe that this case study provides an example of what the pupil premium can achieve. In my view, the schools can get money through the pupil premium, but it is a year away. There are now 12 months in between, during which the whole system might well collapse. There is a gap in the process of one policy following another policy, which has happened before. It provides a warning to the coalition parties. If we want seriously to achieve things, it is not good enough just to agree to great schemes. What is important is what the schemes do on the ground and their impact on the teachers. That brings me back to my point about the teachers who are trying to create stability for what we call the most disadvantaged pupils—the very children who need that stability. I hope that we can continue monitoring these aspects, which will be key to any and every Government.

I acknowledge what the previous Government did with, for instance, academies and Sure Start, but we will have a job to do in tying up the pupil premium and what is left of the education maintenance allowance with the national scholarship for students. We need to tie up that golden thread to maintain support for disadvantaged children in every sector of education, and I hope the Government will pick that up and drive with it.

The lessons that I learn from history are that not only must this issue be dealt with—and it can be dealt with through the provision of good schools and good teachers—but we should pursue it beyond the next month and the next scheme.

Of all the fascinating and important topics that we discuss in the Chamber, none is more important than this, and it is perhaps the topic about which I personally feel most passionate.

You may observe, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I am wearing red. You may also observe that, although we are not allowed props, I am wearing a piece of clothing that I am allowed: a hat, which I wish to take off to the Opposition for having had the compassion to create the Sure Start centres. That is enough theatre; although all Members would agree that there is much to be done to improve Sure Start centres, they represent a huge move in the right direction, and the fact that there is so much consensus across the House on the need to focus on the earliest years is immensely positive.

I want to describe my experiences as chairman for 10 years of a charity called OXPIP—the Oxford Parent Infant Project. It is based in Oxford, and is now co-located with Rose Hill children’s centre, an incredibly important centre in one of the most deprived areas in the country which has been operating for a long time. During my 10 years as chairman, OXPIP has focused, throughout Oxfordshire, on delivering psychotherapeutic support for families who are struggling to bond with their newborn babies.

I shall now give a short master class in early infant brain development, which is mentioned in the reports from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on early intervention. This really is the key to mending our society, creating the society for which we all strive, and solving many of the problems that we end up firefighting in politics.

When a baby is born, he has only the “fight or flight” instinct, rather like an animal. He does not possess the social part of the brain, the frontal cortex, which enables us to form relationships, see the world as a good place, and have hope and aspiration. That part of the brain develops later, and the peak period of its development occurs when the baby is between six and 18 months old. It develops as a result of secure attachment to a principal carer, who is normally the mum but could be the dad, the nanny, the granny or even the next-door neighbour. That first important relationship establishes the baby’s lifelong mental health opportunities.

If a baby is neglected, abused or unloved during the first 18 months or two years of its life—or, worse still, is treated inconsistently—its neural pathways and brain development will reflect that, not just for the moment but for the rest of its life. Leaving a baby to scream and scream will have two profound impacts on that baby. I am not talking about our desire to leave the baby to cry for a while because we are sick and tired of marching him up and down; I am talking about leaving him to cry night after night.

First, the baby’s level of cortisol—the stress hormone—will be considerably raised. If it remains raised for a long period, it will reach a danger point, and will start to damage the baby’s immune system. Secondly, the baby will develop a higher level of tolerance to its own stress hormone. Whereas you or I might be excited by a good hand at cards, a baby with a high tolerance to its own stress level might, in later life, feel the need to beat someone up, spray-paint something, or become involved with drugs in order to get the kick that we might get from a hand of whist. There is a real scientific reaction to constant high levels of stress experienced at a very young age.

If a baby does not experience that secure attachment during the peak period of development of his frontal cortex, his brain development will be damaged over time, and that damage will be permanent. So the baby who is constantly neglected will grow up thinking that neglect is a feature of life and will have a higher likelihood of being depressive, possibly throughout life, of feeling a failure and of being unable to make friends. Likewise, people who are abused and treated inconsistently have a chance of being unable to form decent relationships in later life. All these things are, of course, on a spectrum: some horrifying statistics suggest that 40% of five-year-olds in this country are not securely attached. Of course not all those people will go on to have problems of violence, depression or drug taking, but some of them will. John Lennon said “All you need is love” and that could not be truer, as a growing raft of scientific evidence demonstrates.

A fundamental problem is that if a girl does not form a secure attachment to her mum as a baby, she may lack the physical brain ability to empathise with her own baby when she goes on to have one. So we end up with a cycle of misery that passes down through generations. The ability to feel that the world is a nice place, to get on in life, to form lasting relationships and so on also affects someone’s chances of a decent job and, lo and behold, their prospects in the workplace, their prospects for having a long-lasting relationship and so on. So that cycle of misery is a bit chicken and egg: does the poverty come first or does the lack of attachment come first? We are not putting nearly enough focus on the importance of early attachment and on providing that support.

For the past 12 years, OXPIP has been providing psychotherapeutic support for families and their babies who are struggling, and we have had astonishing results: babies have been taken off the child protection list; countless families have said that they had not realised just how they were reliving their own earliest experiences with their own families; and we have managed to break that cycle of deprivation. From a political point of view, prevention is not only so much kinder, but so much cheaper than cure. So I wish to conclude by issuing a call to action. There are things that the Government can do, and I wish to make some very specific recommendations.

First, I agree completely with the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on the desperate need for more evidence. OXPIP has been working for 12 years but we have always failed to get any proper quantitative research done because of the ethical problems involved in leaving one group to suffer while interventions are made with another group. We have somehow to get around that and find ways to build up the evidence. I am planning to launch NORPIP—the Northamptonshire parent infant project—this year, with support from the director of children’s services, and I hope to use that as a model for how this can be done across the country.

Importantly, the children’s centres must be brought to the centre of all policy making. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead made the great suggestion—I am not sure whether it was to me or whether it is in his paper—of making people sign up for child benefit in a children’s centre, to ensure that they are not stigmatised in any way. Most importantly, the Government need to re-examine the adoption legislation to ensure that babies can be adopted before the age of two, because any time after that is simply too late. Training for health visitors and midwives in the crucial importance of early attachment, improving nursery protocols to focus on the attachment needs of babies, and parenting training in classes can also all prove so valuable. I wish to finish by saying that cross-party support is key and I am so glad that we are seeing an example of it today.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) made an observation about the number of Members here to debate this issue compared with the number who debated the horse racing levy. The other observation that I would make is that so many Members of the new intake are here on a Thursday afternoon to debate this subject. That is so especially because most of us will have stated at some point in our political campaigns that making life better for other people was our motivation for getting into politics. We have my hon. Friends the Members for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and for Salisbury (John Glen) to thank for getting this debate together. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire has been focused on this subject for a very long time. Before he came to this place he was involved with the Bow Group, where he examined the causes of debt, deprivation and despair. In this House, he has set up the all-party group on credit unions. So helping the disadvantaged is something that he is committed to, and I am glad that he has given us all the opportunity to speak in this debate.

What is interesting about this debate is the amount of consensus—something that we do not often get in the Chamber—as well as the fact that we are not attacking each other’s motives. We do not always get that in the Chamber. The consensus is that the early years to which the right hon. Member for Birkenhead referred in his excellent report as the “foundation years” are critical to one’s life chances. That is when boundaries are set and when cognitive functions are developed.

We need only consider the difference that the little things, such as reading to a child, can make. If I look back at my own life, it was traumatic in the early years when my parents split up when I was four or five years old. I remember my mother spending a lot of time reading to me in her very strong way. I could not get away from having an hour or two hours of reading with her every evening and, at the time, I hated every moment of it. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire said, however, if a child cannot read at school, nothing else works. It was important, and I can understand it now. Whenever I complained, she used to throw the scriptures back in my face: train a child in the way they should go and when they grow they will not depart from it. Now, at the age of 34, I can in some way understand what she was trying to achieve.

That is based on my experience and we all have our own individual experiences—some good, some bad, and some to which we are indifferent. The interesting thing about what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead has done is that he has grounded some people’s gut feeling in analytical work. I have commented on what he said about the foundation years, but he has also come up with a set of life chances indicators, all of which are important. What excited me most as I read his report was the fact that it changed the terms of the debate—moving from considering static indicators, such as poverty, to considering this as a life chances issue. The hard data and the research that back them up mean that we can now move on and come up with some decent policies. By move on, I mean that we can move away from the predominant approach of the previous Labour Government, which was the redistributive approach of all-round tax credits, to the approach that some of us on the Government Benches might have had, which is that parenting and the family are outside the responsibility of the state. In fact, if someone is responsible, they know what it means to be a parent, so what business does the state have to comment on it?

We all agree that parenting is at the core of this matter. It is the single biggest responsibility that we can take on as human beings but, interestingly enough, it is the one that nobody trains for. We train if we want to play the piano, or to learn how to speak in public. One can train for almost everything except being a parent. When training does exist, the situation has often irrevocably broken down. As the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said, state intervention happens when people have had problems with the law, by which time it is probably too late. I find it interesting that some of the comments that we have come up with suggest having an intervention earlier on in the process, before things go wrong. Why is that important? It is hard to be a parent. The knowledge that most people have comes from grandparents or their own experience, and we only have to look at the popularity of the site Mumsnet to know that it is all about shared knowledge. Those who live in an area where there is a lot of good shared knowledge can learn from it, but if they live in a part of the country without that knowledge, they are left to their own devices. People make mistakes, sometimes with the best of intentions.

Let me turn to the point I want to focus on, as I have to rush through this. Let us not be fatalistic. Some parents will struggle and some parents will do a good job, but peer pressure might mean that their children will go off the rails. Sometimes the school is where things go right or wrong, and sometimes it is the local environment. In focusing on the early years, we should not automatically consign disadvantaged or unconventional families to an at-risk group. Let us not say that people have only one life chance, as so many things happen in the course of someone’s life that can make a difference to their life chances. There is overwhelming evidence about the early years that we need to focus on, but let us not ignore the other stages in their life. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston said that we should continue to invest throughout someone’s life, but that is probably where I slightly disagree with her. It is interesting to move away from seeing this issue as purely one of resources and from thinking that the problem will be addressed by investing more and more. Deep character development, which is how I would sum all this up, does not depend on wealth. One piece of information that I came across in the report of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead is that Chinese families—

I need to race on—I am terribly sorry. In Chinese families there is not the same correlation between poverty and the outcomes we see in other types of family. While we focus on the early years, I would like us to reintroduce the concept of character into public discourse and to discuss how to bring up and raise children to improve their life chances. When I talk about character, I mean self-discipline and a child saying, “I am not going to watch TV now; I need to do my homework.” I mean a child showing respect to others and knowing that when they go to school and someone gets on their nerves, they should not just thump that person, but should report them to the teacher. Some academics call these considerations pro-social norms. This is something that happens at home and we should not be afraid to talk about character in our public discourse. Character is a function not of wealth but of values and we should be happy to speak about it.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate and I acknowledge the efforts of my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (John Glen) and for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) in enabling it to take place. We have heard much about the lifetime consequences of child poverty for individuals on a personal level and that many of the costly and damaging problems our society faces arise as a result of the right support not being given to our children in their early years. I came across many statistics in researching this issue, and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) has reminded us that a child’s development score at as early as 22 months can be an accurate predictor of their educational outcome at 26. We all have an obligation to work to change such indicators.

I want to talk about the importance of the family unit, the vital role of the extended family and the importance of support, with a sense of balance, as well as one or two issues around education. As someone who believes in the importance of a strong family unit, I believe that parents are the key drivers in determining their children’s life chances. I am pleased that instead of concentrating on the negative aspects of parenthood, the report of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) focuses on ideas to enable parents to achieve their aspirations for their children. Evidence shows the benefits of marriage for a child’s development and that the children of married parents do better on a number of aspects relating to social and emotional development.

I will continue if I may.

We have heard about the importance of the father’s role in minimising the risk of poor outcomes. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) reminded us about the absence of a male role model in the lives of many disadvantaged children. I want to offer support for the role of grandparents in the family unit, which often seems to be an all-or-nothing arrangement in that they are either ever-present or completely absent. The break-up of the family unit means that some grandparents no longer have a relationship with their own children and, as a consequence, have no relationship with their grandchildren. When neither the parents nor the grandparents have the time or skill to support the child, there is, of course, a role for the state to step in.

My experience as a father echoes that of other fathers here, which is that absolutely nothing prepares one for the burdens of parenthood and that one has no idea of the implications for one’s own life. For young mothers and fathers, who are often ill-prepared for parenthood, Sure Start centres have helped to provide the support they need. Having visited Sure Start in my constituency, I recognise its value and believe those important resources and facilities should be targeted in the areas of greatest need. I fully support the proposals to open Sure Start centres to the market so that private companies may bid to run them.

It is important to mention maternity and paternity provisions, because only this week the Deputy Prime Minister announced proposals to allow couples to share maternity leave. I am pleased that the rules will allow either parent to care for their child, but as a former business owner I must sound a note of caution. It is necessary to highlight the difficulties that exist between reconciling what is good from a child development perspective with the needs of people running small businesses in particular. The director general of the British Chambers of Commerce has asked valid questions about how employers are expected to plan and arrange cover with this increasingly flexible system.

The report by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) highlights that it is crucial to recognise that the educational cycle begins at birth. A child’s development does not start from the day they enter primary school, and we should start counting development from birth. In the education system, children do not reach year 1 until they are five years old, and we have already heard from other hon. Members that five is often too late for children who are risk. I am pleased that the report of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) also draws attention to this issue.

Only 20% of young people in the poorest households gain five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, compared with 75% of those from the richest families, so the pupil premium is crucial. If we want children from poorer families to get to university, we must ensure that the additional targeted resources will give them a head start. Providing money for each pupil from a deprived background means that head teachers will have more money to spend on those children.

The right hon. Gentleman’s report also refers to the importance of good teaching between the ages 14 to 16 in reducing the likelihood of children trying cannabis, playing truant or becoming a frequent smoker or drinker. In this context, I want to mention the benefits of selective education. At one time, that was seen as the best way of providing bright children from less well-off backgrounds with the best opportunities in life. My constituency of Rugby has an excellent system, and as both a product of that system and a parent of children who have gone through that system, I know many people who have benefited immensely from the excellent teaching and extra-curricular activities on offer at such schools.

I am pleased with the measures that the Government have already introduced, such as the refocusing of Sure Start and the pupil premium. I hope that the Government’s longer-term strategy to be announced in March will take into account not only the conclusions of the reports of the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen, but the valuable contributions to this debate.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate and I applaud Members on both sides of the House for the good temper in which it has been held. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) who spoke just before me in a debate on life chances. He and I started 43 years ago in the same class. I sat three behind him, and I am delighted that his life chances have not been overly impacted by that experience.

We are talking today about social mobility, which, to me, is the hallmark of a civilised society. It is a subject that probably 650 Members on both sides of the House would agree really matters. It really matters that we get this right. I want to speak on one aspect of this, and it is about how we measure it and targets. Occasionally targets get a bad press and people say that we should not have so many, but in this area, targets are important. The problem is that we have confused three different things—poverty, inequality and life chances. Those three are quite different. They are heavily correlated, but they are not the same, and the danger is that if we apply a policy to the wrong one, or try to affect another, we will get the wrong outcomes.

My concern is that we have made the measurement of inequality a proxy for success in that area. We have discussed the intention of the last Prime Minister but one to eradicate child poverty by 2020, which is a noble ambition, but the principal definition used for that purpose—median income at 60%—is a measure of inequality, not poverty. The risk is that money is spent sub-optimally and that, even though we make transfer payments of £150 billion over a period, we will still be ranked 21st out of 21 countries in a UNICEF report.

I apologise for being the third Government Member not to give way, but we have been asked to rattle through.

One of the most important aspects of the report produced by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) is the indices for life chances. Targets matter, and if we could start to measure the correct things, it is possible that we could really start to make a difference in those outcomes.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) gave the example of the Chinese community and the fact that in schools, the poorest Chinese children outperform children from all other parts of society, except the richest Chinese children. That shows that something is happening that is not just about money. I have conceded that everything is correlated, but it is not just about money; it is about attitude. The words in the right hon. Gentleman’s report that I found the most useful in that context were those relating to positive parenting. “Positive parenting” is a strong phrase that describes the breeding of self-confidence and aspiration in some communities. I hope that the Government will test those indices and take them up if they find them valuable, because we need a proxy for social mobility that is not the same as some of those embedded in the Child Poverty Act 2010.

I will make a final point on a different subject. We can continue what we are doing on educational attainment, but we must also create jobs and ensure that the people leaving our universities are able to take up the opportunities that will exist in the world over the next few years. That relates increasingly to a knowledge of applied science, engineering and technology. I applaud what the coalition Government are doing on apprenticeships. One of the most significant policy failures of the past 20 years has been that we have succeeded in increasing the number of people who go to university by a factor of five, while at the same time fewer of them are studying applied science and engineering. That is at a time when the world is moving towards more advanced manufacturing and all that goes with it. I will finish by reiterating that social mobility is the hallmark of a civilized society. The coalition Government, who are supportive of that aim, should be ready to be judged by their success on that, or lack thereof, over the next few years. That is important to us all.

It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat). He has given the coalition Government a proper test, and rightly so, because it is important that they should have such a test. The phrase “disadvantaged children” is not an attractive one, and we should be embarrassed by the fact that we have to talk about it so often in this country. It certainly embarrasses me and often has. The experience of meeting a young person who is unable to communicate properly, or read and so forth, can be heartrending. One has only to think of the waste that we allow to happen, with so many people who could do so much being left behind. We really need to address the whole issue of disadvantaged children.

Social mobility is critical. We want a mobile society, and that mobility depends on everyone being able to move around. They cannot do so because there are too many roadblocks. I shall refer to a few and suggest some ways in which we might deal with them.

First, we have rightly talked about education, but too many children leave the education system without being equipped to communicate properly and without the confidence to get around and about their lives. Therefore, we must ensure that the education system makes sure, at the very least, that all children can read, write and communicate properly. If we do not do so, we will obviously fail them, but we will fail society as well, and, as a member of the Education Committee, one thing that I constantly worry about is how we ensure that our schools system delivers such results.

The pupil premium and so forth are very important, and we must encourage all those who are entitled to collect it to do so. The question of stigma often arises, however, so we need to think about that in terms of the policy. The very fact that we need the pupil premium is a measure of our failure, but we have talked about measures throughout the debate, or at least while I have been present, so let us recognise that we have to deal with a big measure.

Secondly, education is critical, but there are other roadblocks. I am struck by the fact that we do not deal holistically with early years issues. That is why I was so impressed by the work of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). Alongside all the usual issues, the health of a young person also matters, so we have to ensure that, in the foundation years, as described in the right hon. Gentleman’s review, we consider not just education, but health care and other factors. We need an holistic approach at that level.

My third point, which strikes me every time I go abroad, especially when I focus on planning and housing development, as I did before becoming a Member, is the importance of a child’s environment. That includes the quality of their homes, the way in which they play and interact with each other, and how families interact with each other. I have been to some fascinating places, in Rotterdam for example, where local communities with really well designed housing developments come together, look after each other, spot problems, allow families to develop and ensure that fewer children are disadvantaged. It is, therefore, important for us to think about the environment. Too much of our housing just does not allow such family life or social development between families, so I want to ram home the point that we have to improve our planning system.

I have talked about education because I am on the Education Committee, but we need to highlight a few more issues that have cropped up during its work. One issue is the number of children who care for somebody else. We cannot expect that to be good for them or for anybody in their near neighbourhood; it is totally wrong. The hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who is also a member of the Committee, rightly rammed home the point that it is unacceptable to ignore that group in the context of school discipline, but it is unacceptable to ignore it in any context. We have to calibrate the problem and ensure that we start to do something about the fact that more than 10% of children scuttle back home after a day at school to look after somebody in their household. We need to address that problem, do we not?

Also on the subject of education, we have to think about the early years and encourage proper care and attention for the child as well as where they come from and the family framework in which they are involved.

That brings me to another example from Europe that we need to consider. On the continent we often see the extended family approach, but we do not see it here. We should be encouraging people to think more in terms of their whole family and its different generations. That is linked to other points that I made about planning, health care and education.

We have to be far more inclusive and holistic, and much more demanding that our institutions and charities co-operate with each other to share information more effectively and ensure that local government stops being so silo-based.

I should like to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the charity OXPIP, with which I have been involved for a long time and which works well with the children’s centre in Oxford. There is great potential for the voluntary sector to work closely with statutory agencies to deliver exactly the sort of help to which he is referring.

I thank my hon. Friend. That is a very important example of what is necessary, but we need to see it across the piece.

Government can talk about what they want to happen, but ultimately we have to ensure that it does happen. Delivery is crucial, as is measuring, assessing and understanding the problems. If we do not know what is happening after we have said that something should happen, we are failing completely. We must be holistic, check up, and never, ever take our eye off the ball.

In common with all colleagues, I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and for Salisbury (John Glen) for helping to arrange this debate. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) for their reports. Before I was elected to this House, the hon. Member for Nottingham North gave an excellent talk in my constituency which opened my eyes to this subject for pretty much the first time. I am grateful that the Government have sought to enlist those Members’ expertise.

There is great expertise, too, among Government Front Benchers, to whom I also pay tribute. I remember a visit to my constituency by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who travelled an awfully long way to find out about a particular scheme that was going on at Wolgarston high school in Penkridge. He did not have to do it, but he did so because he was interested.

I should like to take up three points from the report by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. The first is the key fact that we have to get more young men, in particular, into work. That is absolutely essential. The unemployment figures that came out yesterday were disturbing, and the Government must address that. I look forward to the Work programme coming into place, but I urge the Government to ensure that in the months before that happens people do not drop out of the system. I know that things have been done to address that potential problem.

I reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and various other Members said about the importance of having men involved in primary teaching. This week, I was at St Michael’s first school in Penkridge in my constituency, where the head made that very point, saying that there were not enough men in primary teaching and she would love to see more come into it. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead makes the same point about children’s centres:

“The lack of male staff is an equally pressing issue needing to be addressed.”

Does my hon. Friend agree that to address that imbalance, we might encourage more men to volunteer? In my town of Falmouth, the Rotary club does excellent work in a local primary school to help with reading, which has really improved reading standards.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. In my constituency, the Rotary club does work on reading in Doxey primary school. I remember how much I enjoyed reading to my children. I am not sure whether the feeling was mutual, although they told me later that it was.

My second point, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and many other hon. Members, is the critical role of children’s centres. We should ensure that, with the changes, we do not lose what has been achieved. The report by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead states that Sure Start centres

“should maintain some universal services so that Centres are welcoming, inclusive, socially mixed and non-stigmatising, but aim to target services towards those who can benefit from them most.”

I urge the Government to take note of that, and I am sure that they will.

My third point regards television and media. I take up a point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who is no longer in his place, about Staffordshire university—[Interruption.] I beg his pardon; I missed him. He referred to a particular media studies course at Staffordshire university. I must say that Staffordshire university has a very high reputation in media studies and is one of the major institutions in the country for developing state-of-the-art video games technology, which is a major export industry for this country. I just want to give some balance to the impression that people may have got from his comment, which I am sure was not intended as a generalisation.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead talks about the role of the BBC. He recommends that it kitemark the children’s programmes that are most beneficial to parents in the development of language. I urge the BBC and other broadcasters to pay attention to that.

I grew up in a house without a television, and indeed still live in a house without one. I do not recommend that for everybody, although it has certainly done me, my family and my children no harm. However, I do think that parents should be encouraged to consider their use of television, and whether it is necessary to have one in every room in the house, including the bedrooms. Perhaps television could become a social activity with the whole family watching it together, rather than an individual activity with everybody watching their own programmes.

I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Slough about reading. Again, that is absolutely essential and something that we must never forget. I underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) about character—something that is sometimes forgotten. We have to have qualitative, not just quantitative, measures in approaching this subject.

I and my family spent many years living in Tanzania. A Swahili proverb says, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” Many hon. Members have made that point in various ways. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) talked about the importance of community as well as family. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) talked about the way in which the built environment can help or hinder the sense of community.

I look forward to several further debates on this matter in this Parliament. It is absolutely essential that we take note of everything that has been said today and return to it time and again to see what progress is being made. We are talking about something that is vital to the future of this country and of our children, and it is essential that we do not just leave it to one debate and one day in a Parliament.

I begin by congratulating all the Members who have contributed to an excellent debate, and the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on bringing the debate before us. He started by focusing on the fact that what happens outside school is as important as what goes on inside, if not more so. That was a powerful argument for the value of youth services and is linked to the fact that most of the most deprived children in our country can be pinpointed within certain constituencies. That is not to say that Conservative Members do not have deprived children in their constituencies, which of course they do, but it is important to reflect on the fact that children who are brought up surrounded by deprivation are more likely to learn bad habits and come into contact with people who will lead them in the wrong direction.

Members of all parties have welcomed the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). His recent report “The Foundation Years” is incredibly valuable, and I add my voice to those that have paid tribute to both him and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who appears to have been talking about early intervention almost since he was a child himself.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead explained his experiences at Birkenhead junior school, which reflected some of mine at Spire junior school in Chesterfield, in my constituency, which has more than 70% of its pupils on free school meals but is rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted and was the venue for the Deputy Prime Minister launching the pupil premium.

In considering deprived communities, I should like to focus on the importance of people throughout the education sector supporting children throughout the educational and demographic range. The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who is no longer in her place, made an important contribution about the need to build confidence and self-esteem in children. That is a responsibility not just of parents but all of us who have the best interests of children and youths at heart. She also made an important plea for art, drama and sport not to be overlooked, and I hope that the Secretary of State will take that point seriously in talking about the new direction of the curriculum.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson)—I see that he is definitely still in his place—focused on the fact that the changes we need to see, to which all Members seem to be committed, will not happen without investment. The sentiment that it is not all about money is absolutely right, of course, but it is partly about money and we need to ensure that the right contributions are made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) joined the hon. Members for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead in focusing on the importance of Sure Start children’s centres in delivering services. At a time when some Sure Start centres are under threat—I was told recently of the potential closure of six in Derby—that provided all of us with a timely reminder that the local authority cuts will put tremendous pressure on councils. We all need to fight for the facilities in our communities.

The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) said that eradicating child poverty was a key objective of both parties. In fact, “child poverty” is something of a misnomer, because what we really mean is that we want to eradicate poverty. Children are generally poor because their parents are poor, so when we talk about benefit policy and creating jobs, we must remember that children’s poverty does not happen in isolation from the circumstances of their parents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) was one of the few to reflect on the fact that the debate was not just about the early years. They are vital, but continuing to support children throughout their education, whatever direction that might take, is key. The change to education maintenance allowance is an important factor to consider in respect of disadvantaged children and young people. She also focused on the importance of evidence and research-based policy, as opposed to policy based on ideology or policy that is not properly researched.

The hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) spoke of policy experimentation within the education sector. In the light of that, it was interesting that they made positive comments on the raft of changes we have seen in education in just a few short months, including the introduction of free schools, and academies being given extra money if they are outstanding, unlike under the previous policy whereby money was given to the more deprived schools. There has also been a dramatic change of direction in that more schools are now judged against the English baccalaureate—many will now be viewed as failing, even though they were unaware that those were the rules by which they were playing.

The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire informed us of some of the science behind perpetuating disadvantage, which was a valuable and useful contribution to the debate.

In pursuing the arguments made by right hon. and hon. Members, I should like to reflect briefly on some of the steps taken by the previous Government to make the life chances of our most disadvantaged children better. They included free nursery places and Sure Start, which was a visionary decision that has made a big difference. Sure Start has a lot more potential to make an even greater difference to disadvantaged children. Increased out-of-school provision and increased investment in youth services have made a key difference in more deprived communities, as have the improvement in GCSE outcomes and literacy and numeracy, and the measures taken to eradicate poverty. They are all significant strides in the right direction, as is evidenced by the increase in the number of children on free school meals who go to university.

However, as hon. Members on both sides of the House reflected, and given the Government’s decision to pursue the issue, there is still much to do. The Opposition agree with the sentiments articulated by the Government on the need to focus on early years, outreach work and health visitors. The decision to invite my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North to provide reports was welcome. We hope that they will be given resources and the means to deliver their ends.

The extra money for pet projects and the cuts to EMA, Sure Start and local authority funding must be seen in the context of what the Government are trying to achieve. The commitment of the House to reducing inequalities in educational attainment has been heard loud and clear on both sides of the Chamber. A consensus seems to have formed around the importance of early intervention and eradicating child poverty, and we will be watching to see whether this Government’s policy helps to reduce that gap or whether it moves more people into poverty. Our children deserve the best. The Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North can be assured that the party that has always done more than any other to improve social mobility, with fairness at its core, will listen, learn and keep fighting for the best outcome for our children.

I congratulate the hon. Members for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this debate. I offer the House a heartfelt apology for arriving a few minutes late and missing the beginning of the former’s speech. I am always very particular about being on time, and I am extremely embarrassed that I missed that.

This has been a fantastic debate—really, really interesting. The tone has been very good. Listening to enormous expertise, often from new Members, gives me great hope that the issue of disadvantaged children will continue to be championed by all parties. It is clear that we want a sustainable solution to this problem. The fact that there is so much interest, especially among new Members on both sides of the House, gives me great hope that we shall achieve that.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire closed his speech with the key points on which we need to focus—life chances, the quality of the home environment and better evidence. His remarks set the scene and his themes were picked up by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) rightly stressed that the issue has preoccupied Governments for a long time. It is a difficult problem to tackle and it requires complex solutions. The Government are extremely grateful for his report, as we are for the interim report by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), which was published yesterday. The right hon. Gentleman made the point that, too often, the life race is over by five. Early years are life-changing, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively, and we need a holistic approach to tackling the issues that arise from that.

My hon. Friends the Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) spoke about the importance of quality teaching and its role in improving self-esteem. The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) made several interesting and important points, including the need for us to focus on runaway children. The Government take that issue seriously, and I hope to assure her that the Department for Education is already working on the report that was recently produced by Barnardo’s. She also raised some important points about the performance framework. The Government want to move more to an outcomes focus rather than an inputs focus, and we are working with the sector and local authorities to try to define that performance framework. We want to pilot payment by results to try to incentivise the use of evidence-based programmes—the kind of evidence-based programmes that were illustrated in the report from the hon. Member for Nottingham North.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) spoke with great expertise from her perspective as a family lawyer. She made one point that caught my attention about the need, when working with someone with a drug or alcohol problem, to look holistically at the family and not deal only with the person presenting a problem. That was picked up in the Government’s drug strategy.

My hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) raised the issue of parents and relationships. What we know from the evidence is that there are several pinch points of enormous stress in relationships, especially when young—or older—couples have their first child. Without wanting to preach about how families organise themselves, the Government will make that the focus of their relationship support. It is a tragedy when a relationship breaks down because the support is not available to allow people to get over difficulties, or they are not equipped to do so. The Government have invested £7.5 million a year across this comprehensive spending review period and, in addition, have given £500,000 to the voluntary sector to train Sure Start children’s centres practitioners to help to identify these issues.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—I always enjoy listening to her, even if I do not always agree with her—made several important points about parenting skills, an issue that was also picked up by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah). The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston will be well aware—she has raised the issue with me before in Education questions—that parenting programmes are an important part of Sure Start children’s centres, and some of the evidence-based programmes that the hon. Member for Nottingham North was picking up yesterday highlight that issue in particular. However, the solutions do not always have to be formal. Several hon. Members spoke about the role of parent-toddler groups, and such peer support can be important for parents who can pick up skills and techniques for dealing with issues as they arise.

The hon. Member for Slough made several interesting points, but a debate began in her speech about the importance of male role models—something that the Government take seriously. Indeed, the coalition document states that we want to increase the number of men in early education. It is a very complicated problem to solve. It is as much about the esteem of early-years practitioners as any of the other reasons picked up by hon. Members during the debate. The Government have started a new programme based on Teach First called New Leaders in Early Years, which is intended to pick up graduates. We hope that it will entice young men to enter the early-years profession for different reasons and target some more academic approaches, which would kill two birds with one stone in terms of what we are trying to do on quality in early years.

The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) spoke about the role of the big society, and may I congratulate him on fulfilling his maiden speech pledge already? It must be a world record.

The quality of the debate has been extremely high. As Members on both sides have said, it is unacceptable that in the 21st century, and in one of the richest countries in the world, the circumstances of a person’s birth, rather than their ability, dictate their outcomes in life. We know that unfortunately many poor families struggle with the basics, while the wealthiest, who often live just a few streets away, can get on in life. Some children never achieve their potential because of the barriers that are thrown in their way, while their wealthier neighbours clear hurdles with ease. I see that in my own constituency.

The barriers that children face, often very early in life, affect their life chances for ever. Again I see this, I am afraid, in my own constituency. There is the staggering statistic that a child born in Harlesden, in the heart of my constituency, is likely to die, on average, more than 10 years earlier than a child born in Kensington, which is just a few miles away. Many Members commented on the fact that there are complicated relationships between the different elements of disadvantage, and very complicated relationships between that and income. Income is extremely important, but it is not the only problem, and if we are to tackle this in the long term we need to consider the causes and factors other than income.

Hon. Members have drawn to the House’s attention particular issues concerning those in the care system and children who are themselves carers. I would like to add a group that has not been mentioned: those in kinship care arrangements with grandparents, parents, siblings or other relatives. We need to do more, and encourage local authorities to do more, to ensure that they are given the support that those who foster, for example, get.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Eileen Munro is considering that as part of her review of social care. We need to encourage local authorities to think about all the options for kinship care, including with grandparents, before a child is taken into care.

I said that income is vital, and the fact that the Government recognise that is spelt out in the coalition agreement, which states that we will meet the targets set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010. However, we intend to do it with a slightly different focus from the previous Government. We want to put a lot of effort into trying to tackle the underlying issues affecting a child’s life and, in particular, the entrenched disadvantage that gets passed from one generation to another. The interim report from the hon. Member for Nottingham North made clear just how vital intervening early is. For those who have not seen his interim report, let me say that the front cover contains a scan of a child’s brain at a very young age, and already we can see how things are hardwired—that was picked up by the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). The need to intervene early is precisely why the Government have invested extra money in disadvantaged two-year-olds. We know that quality early education at that stage makes a huge difference.

The hon. Member for Slough picked up on a point about what happens with poorer children when they mix with children from other backgrounds. It demonstrates the reasons I felt strongly that we needed to extend the early-years free entitlement from 12.5 hours to 15 hours and to continue with that despite the difficult circumstances. That universal offer for three and four-year-olds is extremely important. The quality of social mixing makes a big difference to a child’s chances. I hope that bringing that down to all disadvantaged two-year-olds will make a significant difference to children’s lives. Indeed, we intend to legislate to make that an entitlement in the education Bill that will be published shortly.

Similarly, it is vital that Sure Start is accessible to all, but we need a better focus on disadvantaged families. As I said just a minute ago in response to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, we intend to use payment by results to ensure that we focus on using evidence-based programmes better. That is also why we have invested extra money in health visitors, because outreach is vital, as was pointed out earlier. We need to ensure that we get to those families in difficulty, bringing them into centres so that we can focus the extra help and evidence-based programmes that we are using on them. My colleagues in the Department of Health have also announced extra investment in the family nurse partnership, a fantastic scheme that has had good results and shown promise, particularly in working with young families.

The Government have also asked Dame Clare Tickell to review the early-years foundation stage, to see whether we can simplify some of the burdens, but retain all the quality, because it has done so much to improve outcomes for young people at that age, and also to think about how we can get services to work more closely together. That is already the focus of some of her thinking, as she looks at how we can utilise other health professionals to ensure that we serve the most disadvantaged children best. That focus on narrowing the gap is also why the Government feel so strongly that we need to invest in the pupil premium, and there will be an extra £2.5 billion for schools by the end of the spending review period to ensure that we can focus on the most disadvantaged children.

I am running out of time, and there are many more points that I would like to respond to. I am extremely grateful to hon. Members for their contributions to this very good debate. I hope that there will be many more opportunities to debate the issue over the course of the Parliament, because the ideas that we have heard, particularly from those with expertise in this area, are helpful to us in formulating policy.

We have had a very good debate this afternoon, which has been a worthy use of Back-Bench time, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee once again for granting it.

The debate was effectively brought to life right at the outset by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who reminded us that too many children arrive at school not recognising their own name, or unable to remove their coats or hold a crayon. We have had a wide-ranging debate since then, with many hon. Members drawing on their expertise and experience, from both their personal journeys and their paid and voluntary work. The passion and commitment of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) was clear from his response from the Opposition Front Bench. My hon. Friend the Minister’s response also made clear how central the new Government’s agenda on this issue is to their programme, even in these difficult economic times.

Although this debate will stop here in less than 90 seconds, in a broader sense it will continue. One encouraging thing from this afternoon has been the number of Members here from the new intake. One thing that I hope will come out of that is the formation of an all-party group on social mobility, which I hope will be a vehicle whereby we can contribute to the debate.

I will close by mentioning two stories from this afternoon that really struck me. The first was from my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who talked about the stopwatch, which hon. Members will remember; the second was from my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), who quoted Lennon and McCartney when she said, “All you need is love”. Those two things reminded me strongly of the value of encouragement and the power of individuals to make a difference, and were a timely reminder that every programme or strategy amounts to a series of very human interventions. I remarked at the start of this debate that the issues that we have been talking about today lie at the heart of why so many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, were motivated to come into politics. That has certainly been clear this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of improving life chances for disadvantaged children.