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Early Years Assessments

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2011

It is a great pleasure to be under your chairmanship once again, Mr Havard. I also take particular pleasure in welcoming the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), to Westminster Hall today, because I have the chance to put on record my thanks to her and her officials for the tremendous help I have had with the two reviews on early intervention that I was asked to do by Her Majesty’s Government. I am very pleased with the personal and the official co-operation, which have made my job much easier. My first report was on what an effective early intervention strategy is and my second report, which is due out shortly, is on how we pay for it.

Early intervention is about giving every baby, child and young person the social and emotional capability—the bedrock—that we all need to lead effective lives, so reducing the massive costs of failure to the individual and to taxpayers. All of us in this Chamber, I imagine, are early interveners. We were either intervened upon early by our own parents or, almost naturally and unconsciously, intervened early with our children, but many families do not do that, and in our debate we want to assist those people.

Today’s debate is about assessing the social and emotional capabilities of the nought to five-year-olds. The issue is as close to the Minister’s heart as it is to mine. Such assessment is key to early intervention. If we do not have that knowledge, intervention is much more difficult, and we therefore intervene only when problems have become deep-rooted and much more intractable. Assessment is also the key to the concept of school-readiness, which has thankfully gained favour recently.

In that context, one of the most important things we will see in the next year or two will be the Government proposals on the early years foundation stage, which I understand might even be published before the recess. That statement will be of immense significance, and I wish the Minister well in getting those judgments right, because they will impact on every child and their life chances and for the rest of their adult lives. Getting it right for the nought to fives also means—a bonus for the Minister—that she will probably do more to reduce the structural deficit in this country than any host of Treasury Ministers, by attacking the massive, multi-billion-pound costs of failure, such as educational underachievement, low work aspiration, lifetimes on benefit, high crime levels, poor parenting, drink and drug abuse and teenage pregnancy. All of those are reduced by effective early intervention. The evidence now, not least in my report for Her Majesty’s Government, is absolutely incontrovertible: those consequences flow from effective early intervention. The Minister would not be the person I know her to be if she did not have a long list of useful items on which the gigantic pool of savings could be spent when we can monetise and realise those savings in due course.

It is possible to wait. We can wait until school begins, and we can have a booster programme, but I believe that a far better approach is to help children to achieve the milestones as they grow, giving a little extra help as it is needed, rather than just before going to school. Therefore, regular and effective assessment of nought to five-year-olds is crucial. It should not be necessary to say this, but I am not asking for babies to sit examinations or any of the other tripe that people misinterpret in some lower-grade newspapers. Assessment should be gentle, and not intrusive. It should gauge levels of attainment and school-readiness much earlier in the life of a baby, child or young person, and identify and then support those who are not school-ready.

Just as we can barely believe that tiny children were once sent up chimneys, I believe that in years to come future generations will be aghast that we let children enter school when they were not ready, and often subjected them to 11 years of humiliation and underachievement before spending billions of pounds picking up the pieces. Now, with what we know, we no longer have an excuse. We know that it is much cheaper and more effective to provide an alternative: evidence-based programmes that produce real results. They are available to all of us, and will help to overcome the barriers that have become commonplace in many constituencies, including yours, I suspect, Mr Havard, and mine. They put in the early filters that good parenting normally puts in so that our public services and voluntary sector are not swamped with a tsunami of dysfunction, but can focus on the really tough problems that people thought they had become teachers, local beat officers, doctors or health visitors to deal with. We must filter out the vast majority of people whose needs are not as serious and can be dealt with by early intervention.

The key to doing that is for the Department for Education and Department of Health, who separately do so much excellent work on this issue, to work together, and I know that the Minister is working extremely hard on making those connections and working with ministerial colleagues. If we can do that, and create a single strategy for nought to five-year-olds, instead of one that breaks off or changes criteria halfway through, we will have effective assessment, and be able to identify the individuals who need it.

In my first report, I recommended that all children’s development should be regularly assessed from birth up to and including the age of five, with a focus on social and emotional development so that they can be put on the path to school-readiness, which many, not least those from low-income households, would benefit from. Accountability is confused and divided, policy is incomplete, and there is an unnecessary separation between the healthy child programme reviews and the early years foundation stage assessments. It is timely that several external reviews have taken place, and that a more integrated programme of assessments for all children should explore the opportunities for national measures based on those suggested not only in my first review, but in the almost identical proposals in the reviews of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and Dame Clare Tickell, as well as Professor Eileen Munro.

There have been four serious and significant reviews in this area. This issue is one of the many—I would argue that it is the most important issue—on which all four independent reviewers agree. The culture of early rather than late intervention should be central to the policy not just of the present Government, but of all future Governments. This is an intergenerational problem. It is not the property of one party or one Government. We all have to sign up to this. I am very grateful to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for their kind words in support of my first report and the kind words that they have allowed me to attach to the second report, which will be in the public domain shortly.

The Government have the opportunity to act swiftly to ensure that the nought to fives are helped at the earliest and most cost-effective point in their lives, so that they can develop that social and emotional bedrock and thrive. I hope very much that that is the direction that we will see from the Government in the early years statement, which I believe is to be published in the not-too-distant future.

My next point is about evidence. I do not want to go into that in too much detail. There is lots of it around now. There is a great deal of it in my own review and the other reviews. However, there is one important connection that I want to raise with the Minister. It is of concern to many of us, not least, if I may say so, the Deputy Prime Minister. I am referring to social mobility. If we are to have the levels of social mobility that all parties would subscribe to, it is vital that the groundwork is put in place as early as possible. Schemes that are produced late on in the life cycle are very gallant but highly ineffective when compared with early intervention. The Department for Education’s internal analysis of the national pupil database underlined that when it said that children who perform badly at the start of school tend to perform badly throughout and that a good start in life is hugely important to later educational attainment.

There are those who say that this is a choice; we have only so much money and we have to figure out whether we spend it on this, that or the other, because there are discrete, hermetically sealed primary results, secondary results and further and higher education results. Nothing could be further from the truth, as underlined by the Department’s own findings.

If we can give the little ones a great start, we are giving them the most fantastic advantage. We all know from our constituencies what the response is when we say to a secondary head, “Why aren’t your numbers better? Why aren’t your people getting more GCSEs?” They say, “You ought to see the people who come to us at age 11. Some of them can’t read and write.” If we ask a primary school head why their children aren’t doing quite so well, they say, “You should see the children when they arrive. They are not potty-trained. They can barely speak. They think a pencil is an implement to inflict pain on their nearest neighbour; they don’t understand that it’s used for writing. They can’t speak in a sentence. They don’t recognise letters or numbers.”

All the things that I have just mentioned are from Ofsted reports about schools in my constituency. Let us get this right early on, and those kids will then be open to all the fantastic potential that Governments of all political colours have created throughout the education system. However, they need to have the social and emotional bedrock in place first, or nothing else can go forward. That, too, remains a key to social mobility.

Assessment is vital, but there are two key points about assessment. First, it must be regular and comprehensive. Secondly, the content of the assessment must measure the right stuff. That has to include social and emotional capability—not just how much baby weighs or whether baby looks as though he or she is thriving, but some of the measures of social and emotional capability that we have the science to do now. That way, we will ensure that individuals who need help can be found and helped. We can then track their progress and as soon as the young person, child or baby is back on track, we can leave them alone. They are self-starting and they will do well in life. Then we are out of their life.

People sometimes talk about the nanny state. There is no bigger nanny state than not giving people help when they need it, because later on there will be the mega-nanny state of policing, drug rehabilitation, drink abuse, magistrates courts, a lifetime on benefits, welfare advisers and remedial teaching. You want nanny state? That is what we have now, whereas early intervention can actually free people to make the best of themselves and free parents to make the best of their children. So I get a bit annoyed about people who say that early intervention is part of the nanny state. It is actually the opposite of the nanny state and the response to too much state intervention, too late, in someone’s life, when it is not effective.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this incredibly important debate.

I have spent a lot of years in education, some of them at the hard end of the scale with the young people that my hon. Friend is talking about—the young people who will cost the state millions of pounds throughout their lives. And yet, whenever I go into nurseries, and I still go into nurseries, nursery teachers will tell me exactly—well, not exactly, because things do intervene, but generally—which children, in years to come, will be the children who will be excluded from school, who will be part of the prison system and who will cost the state a fortune. It is incredibly important that we can move things forward so that we can identify those children early on. Whenever that has happened, it has happened successfully. It is just about shifting the resources down to those children and at the earliest point, even below the age of three.

My hon. Friend speaks with great personal experience and she deserves to be listened to with great respect. I imagine that the Minister would not disagree with the sentiments that she has just expressed. In many ways, the arguments about early intervention have now been won. We all now “talk the talk.” What will be very important about the paper in the summer will be seeing what the Government will do. Having said that, they will need the support of the Opposition Front Bench too. I hope that there will not be sniping about this issue. I hope that this is an issue about which people will say, “This is so important that we all have to get behind this and we all have to go forward together”, because it is about inter-generational change rather than a quick snapshot and a quick media opportunity. That is why the Government statement will hopefully contain some things that my hon. Friend and I will relish.

At the moment, there is the early years foundation stage framework for assessment, which is very useful, and the healthy child programme, which is also very useful. However, they have to be combined and they must go further. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board.

Clare Tickell, in her report, strongly recommended that the Government work with experts and services to test the feasibility of having a single integrated review between the ages of two and two and a half. I think that my report goes a little further than that.

The second thing that I mentioned about assessment is content. There is a vast range of other possible means of assessment out there, which can make assessment more effective. Rather than taking time in this debate today, I will write to the Minister separately about those means of assessment. But they include assessments of infant attachment behaviour; the assessments of the incredible years programme; the assessments of the social and emotional aspects of learning, or SEAL, programme, although I know that programme starts at primary level; the parental attitudes surveys; and the ages and stages questionnaire. There are lots and lots of other possible assessments from which inspiration can be drawn for a light-touch but none the less effective set of regular assessments.

So what next? First, I welcome the Government’s commitment in this area. I particularly welcome the recruitment of 4,200 extra health visitors. I also welcome the extension of the family nurse partnerships and the fact that developmental checks will be made on children at six weeks, six months, one year and two years. What I would press the Minister on, in the most friendly way, is to ensure that those checks are reliable and standardised, and that they include social and emotional checks, not just those for physical well-being. That includes a check at six weeks to assess the degree of attunement between parents and baby—the interactivity and development of empathy upon which all social relations form a base—and an assessment of the relationship between the parents. It is a tragic statistic or fact that most domestic violence and child abuse often begins in this very early period of a child’s life.

At six months and one year, there should be another check on the attunement and attachment between parent and child, and at two to three years there should be a check on parent-child interaction, warmth, authoritativeness and the child’s level of personal, social and emotional development, as described in Clare Tickell’s review, supplemented by the questionnaire on strengths and difficulties at the age of three. At the age of four, there should be a light-touch assessment of how the child is doing and how they might be helped to be school-ready and to make the best of themselves. Will the Minister also confirm that, at five years, there will be an assessment of a child’s level of personal, social and emotional development, as described in the Tickell review?

I also press the Minister to confirm that data on children’s personal, social and emotional development at age two, three and five will be available to hold Government, local authorities and children’s centres to account, as recommended by my fellow reviewers, Clare Tickell and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). I understand that some in government might not want to collect or use data from the review of ages two and three, because they see it as too prescriptive or as requiring bureaucracy, but I hope that my tirade earlier about the nanny state will expunge any remaining view that this is part of some immense bureaucracy. This is actually designed to defeat and counter that sort of bureaucracy and to reduce the need for any state intervention in someone’s later childhood or adult life.

I want to support what my hon. Friend has said. When we have assessed the academic capability, particularly in things such as maths and science, of the many young people aged 14, 15 or 16 whom I have worked with, we have found that they are age appropriate. However, when we look at their personal and social development, we see that they are in the P scales, well below what we would expect a child to have at two and three years old. If we could tackle those things at three, four and five years old, before allowing those children to get to 15 or 16 without being able to talk to one another or hold a conversation without hitting each other, and without being able to go into a shop without causing trouble, we would make their lives, and our own, much better.

Again, I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. I am sure that the Minister also agrees with, and will respond positively to, her sentiments. Time is running out, so I will move on quickly and put down markers about the new health visitors. I hope that the early implementer sites for delivering health visitor commitment will be able to test some of the things that I have talked about. My final marker is about children’s centres. They already provide very good and effective outreach and family support, and I hope that the Minister will be able to ensure that they include the social and emotional development along the lines recommended by the Munro review.

Rather than continuing and taking up the Minister’s time, I would like to repeat my thanks to her and her officials for all the support she has given this issue during her time in office. It has made a difference and I hope that it continues to do so. The forthcoming review provides the Minister with an opportunity, which I am sure that she will seize, to make a difference to the lives of not only someone we meet on a casework basis or some group, but literally millions of children, babies and young people. She can help them realise their potential and see what they have to do to make their lives much more rounded and capable, and not many of us in this place ever get a chance to do that. It is a fantastic opportunity that has fallen to the Minister, and it could not fall to a better person.

Thank you, Mr Havard. May I begin by welcoming you to the Chair? I understand that it is your first time in the Chair. This is the civilised end of the House of Commons.

Okay. It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing this really important debate, which he finished by saying what a great privilege it is to be able to do this job.

The hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), who is also present, takes a real interest in this area. We are all united by this sense of wanting to make a difference to many future generations. I know that that is why the hon. Gentleman was keen to do this piece of work on early intervention for the Government. We were very grateful to him for his work and we look forward to his second report. We are particularly grateful to him for championing the issue of emotional and social development. As he said, such development is a vital part of school-readiness, which Dame Clare Tickell took up in her review of the early-years foundation stage. She made it clear that school-readiness is about being able not just to hold a pen but to form relationships. As the hon. Gentleman said, if a child has not acquired those skills, they could have 12 years of misery ahead of them and a lifetime of difficulty in forming the kind of relationships that they need to in order to get on in school and work.

There is already a huge amount of evidence on the importance of this area. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that given that we are still awaiting his second report and that we are about to produce our own publication on our vision for the foundation years, I am limited in what I can say today in response to his questions. However, I can assure him that all of his questions are issues with which we are still wrestling and that he is absolutely in the right area. I will not be able to give him any details until we respond formally. When we do, we will be responding to the outstanding recommendations from his first report and to Dame Clare Tickell’s review of the foundation stage, and we will be holding a formal consultation on that. I hope that we will be able to produce those publications this side of the summer recess, so there is not long to wait. Some of that detail is still being thought through.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about a number of issues, including attachment, the assessment processes, the need to have an integrated process and the importance of focusing on the early years for social mobility. It is important to stress that early intervention is wider than just early years. It is a concept of intervening before a problem becomes so unmanageable that it requires people at different stages in their life to be rescued. It is to enable people to put the pieces of their life back together again and to move on. Although it is wider than focusing on nought to five, those early years are a critical part of an early intervention philosophy. A wide range of evidence shows that sound social and emotional development is absolutely critical to a child’s success. It helps them to form positive relationships and to understand the emotions of others, which the hon. Member for North West Durham mentioned. It also helps to create the resilience that is necessary to be able to deal with the challenges that life throws at everybody at different stages. Without the strong parental attachment and bonding that happens in the first few weeks, months and years of life, it is difficult for young people to grow up to be able to cope with the difficult things that unfortunately befall most of us at some stage in our lives.

We know that poor parenting and, in particular, harsh, inconsistent and neglectful actions lie behind many of the child behaviour problems that last into adulthood and are common in young people who find themselves within the criminal justice system. Such children are often much more disruptive in the classroom and much more likely to be excluded from school. It is important that we support parents early before that cycle sets in and becomes so entrenched that there is nothing we can do about it.

There are many different ways in which we can support parents. I will speak a little about some of those things in the last few minutes and address the points made about assessment. It is not only the Government’s role to support parents. Many other organisations, including those in the voluntary sector, do an absolutely vital job in supporting parents to form close attachments with their children. There are parent and toddler groups, often run by faith groups, in my constituency and I suspect in many other constituencies as well. They perform a vital role in supporting parents to understand good parenting behaviour and to learn from one another.

Arrangements for assessment in the early years have been strengthened by the early-years foundation stage, which Dame Clare Tickell has just reviewed for us. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a lot more can be done, in particular to try to integrate health and early years. That is why I have been working very closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), the Minister with responsibility for public health and child health, on the statement that we will be producing before the summer recess, as well as working closely with the sector. We are determined to try to ensure that we draw from the best of good practice from health and integrate that with the best of good practice that already exists in many early-years settings.

There are already regular health checks for children in their first year, which offer parents an opportunity to raise any concerns they have at a very early stage. A key principle of the early-years foundation stage is that early-years practitioners should undertake ongoing assessment and discuss children’s progress regularly with parents and carers. However, Dame Clare Tickell made recommendations that I hope will make the process more transparent for parents. They focus on three key areas, including the area that the hon. Gentleman wants us to focus more on—emotional and social development. They will create clarity in the conversation that early-years practitioners are able to have with parents and will focus on how children are developing.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North said that he hopes the Government will take seriously the need for better assessments. Obviously, we need to balance different factors. We need to have more information for the right people to ensure that we can intervene, but the assessment should not be so burdensome that it takes away from practitioners’ being able to spend quality time with children and helping them with their development. That is the balance that we are seeking to strike as we think through our recommendations in relation to the hon. Gentleman’s report as well as the report of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), Dame Clare Tickell’s report and the Munro review.

Dame Clare recommends a written summary assessment when a child is aged between two and three, building on the current requirements of the EYFS. That chimes with much of what the hon. Gentleman was recommending. She suggests introducing that in a phased way, reflecting the development of policy over the next few years as we roll out the extra health visitors and ensure that the healthy child programme is available to all children. So in the first phase the summary assessment should inform the health visitor review wherever possible, but be done by early-years practitioners and be a key factor for helping parents to understand their child’s development. In the second phase, Dame Clare suggests that there should be a single integrated joint review by health and early-years practitioners at around two, once the healthy child programme is fully implemented.

I am going to run out of time, because I have only one minute before I need to sit down, but I will say to the hon. Gentleman that the Government absolutely understand the need to focus on early years and the importance of early years in getting this right. It is the reason we have extended free early-years entitlement to disadvantaged two-year-olds, subject to Parliament’s passing the Education Bill, which is being debated in the other place at the moment. It is the reason why we are focusing on making sure that Sure Start children’s centres do more on evidence and trialling payment by results to address the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. We will respond fully to his report as soon as the Government receive it. I must now sit down, but I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to debate this issue today.