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Achievement Gap in Reading

Volume 585: debated on Thursday 4 September 2014

I remind hon. Members that this debate will conclude at 5 pm precisely. I have had indications from four Members that they wish to speak. In order to leave enough time for the mover of the motion, the shadow Minister and the Minister, I am asking Back Benchers to try to keep their remarks to approximately five minutes. I am not going to set a time limit at the moment. I ask Members to be on their best behaviour.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the achievement gap in reading between poorer children and their better-off peers.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this issue for debate today and I hope that we have the opportunity to explore the important issues of child poverty, inter-generational poverty and social mobility.

In January, I, along with many other parliamentarians, attended a reception hosted by Save the Children called “Change the Story”. We learnt about its partnership with a charity called Beanstalk to deliver the reading programme Born to Read. I am a parliamentary champion for Save the Children and I was fascinated to learn about its involvement in a major reading programme that aims to reach 23,000 children by the end of 2018.

At the reception, we heard from Lauren Child, author of the “Charlie and Lola” books, who said what a marvellous ambition it was to get everybody reading. She stressed how important it is for children to enjoy reading for the opportunity it presents to delve into other worlds and expand their imagination. The former Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), also spoke, focusing on social mobility and how important it is for disadvantaged children to learn to read well. I want to explore both those important perspectives.

In the UK today, one in every four children leaves primary school without being able to read well, meaning 130,000 children each year start secondary school already behind, with consequences for their later life chances. Of those children, a disproportionately large number are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Of children on free school meals—on the definition as we knew it before this week’s move to free school meals for all infants—the proportion leaving primary school who do not read well rises drastically to a shocking 40%.

Inevitably, not being able to read well affects a child’s life across a range of outcomes and limits chances of success. Not reading well not only shuts children out of further learning but means they are less likely to read outside of school and therefore will miss out on all the benefits associated with the joy of reading. For children from poorer backgrounds, there is a profound impact on the likelihood of their ever catching up.

This is not a new problem. Despite persistent efforts from successive Governments, the number of children reaching secondary school age without a firm grasp of this crucial skill is still far too high. Progress has been made, there are examples of excellent schemes and major initiatives have been introduced, but there is undoubtedly much more to do. There is overwhelming evidence that not being able to read well has implications not only for an individual child’s well-being and success, but also for our society and economic prosperity. Children who have fallen behind at 11 are less likely to secure good qualifications by the time they finish their education, thus impacting on their ability to get a high-paying job or gain career advancement. For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, this means it is less likely that they will have the means to pull themselves out of disadvantage and break intergenerational cycles of poverty.

Low literacy has been associated with both truancy and exclusion. Those with poor reading and communication skills are more at risk of offending and it is well documented that a high proportion of the prison population have difficulties in reading.

Beyond the individual human costs, the economic costs of this wasted talent means lower prosperity for the country as a whole. If the UK had in recent decades closed the achievement gap at 11, this would have led to a more skilled work force and higher economic growth: according to a recent report by Save the Children, GDP in 2013 would have been around £20 billion or 1% higher; by 2030, it would be around £30 billion or 1.8% higher.

The achievement gap between the poorest children and their better-off peers is consistent with achievement in reading. Children born into poorer families are significantly more likely to have fallen behind in reading by the age of 11. Some 40% of poor children are not reading well compared with 25% of their better-off peers. Within that, some disadvantaged groups are faring less well at age 11 than others. Boys, and particularly low-income, white boys, are the most likely group to be falling behind when it comes to reading. We need to make sure that all children have a fair start in life.

Early years are, of course, crucial. The foundations for early language and literacy are laid in the early years, before children start formal school. I would like to give credit to Bookstart, which is fantastic for issuing books at such an early stage. A child from a disadvantaged background is likely to have a more limited vocabulary than other children before even starting pre-school. The implementation of the Bercow report did lead to many important changes, including support for early language development, but I would like to see a further review on progress made on this aspect.

I welcome the expansion of nursery places to two-year-olds and the introduction of an early-years premium from April 2015. This specifically aims to close the gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers by providing funding to early-years providers to help them raise the quality of their provision. In time I would like to see this at a higher level. Going to a high quality pre-school plus an effective primary school has an enormous effect, balancing out differences by family background, so we must focus on quality as well as quantity of provision and on well-trained professionals.

I strongly believe that early education has to be right for the individual child and based on a clear understanding of child development. Trying to “hothouse” young children can be counter-productive and put them off learning for life, especially if they see themselves as failing simply because they are not as mature as their peers. Personally, I see much to support in the Save Childhood Movement’s “too much, too soon” campaign, which believes that children in England are starting formal learning too early, that the value of their creative and expressive play is being undermined, and that learning dispositions and later academic achievement may be affected. I believe that such views should not be dismissed lightly and we should be making sure we have the right balance in our early years programmes to enhance long-term learning.

As well as improving outcomes at 11, we have to lay the foundations for effective secondary school learning. Nevertheless, I certainly support the view that there should be a greater focus on early language development in the pre-school years.

I am concerned about summer-borns, some of whom are simply not ready to start formal school at barely four years of age. I welcome the movement that the Department for Education has made on this issue with new guidance, but I know there are parents still battling schools and local authorities simply to exercise parental choice. I have had parents contact me from across the country whose children could not cope with formal school at such an early stage; imagine feeling a failure at just four years of age.

Of course, some children will be developmentally ready to read at an earlier stage than others. I believe all children should be viewed as individuals whatever their backgrounds, and supported in their learning in an appropriate way to achieve their full potential. There is a positively reinforcing cycle between reading enjoyment and reading skill. We learn to read, then read to learn. The enjoyment of reading is associated not only with better reading skills but with better skills in other areas, such as maths. Research for the National Literacy Trust suggests a positive relationship between reading frequency, reading enjoyment and attainment.

I know that the Minister was keen to introduce phonics as the main reading scheme in schools, and there is widespread support for that as a technical approach. It is also important, however, that teachers should be able to use their professionalism to develop each child’s reading. Alongside phonics, we must have programmes to support reading for enjoyment. I asked an oral question on such programmes recently, and the summer reading challenge was given as the answer. It is a great scheme, and I am sure that this year’s Mythical Maze gave many children a great deal of pleasure, but we must ensure that we have schemes that reach all children. I wonder how many children have never, or only rarely, visited a public library.

There is a wide range of organisations that work to promote reading skills and reading for pleasure for children, young people and adults, but more needs to be done by all, including voluntary organisations, business, families and Government, to promote the joy of reading. Good schools make an enormous difference, especially to children from more disadvantaged backgrounds. It is undeniable that poverty can make it harder for children to do well, but a good school can be transformational.

There now needs to be increased support for schools and teachers to do even more to help the poorest children. Policies such as the pupil premium are making a real difference, as was demonstrated in the July 2014 Ofsted report, “The pupil premium: an update”. The Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), has made it clear that schools should not rely on their brightest pupils to score well in inspections and league tables. He has said that they must focus relentlessly on closing the achievement gap by making full use of the pupil premium.

The role of parents and carers in supporting their child’s reading in the home is crucial, but many parents, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, do not understand how best to support their child in developing early literacy and reading habits. Poor families generally have fewer books in the home, and parents with weak literacy skills often lack the confidence to read stories with their children. We must ensure that parents and carers are able to do the best for their children. This means not only ensuring that the right tools and information are available but acting to reduce the poverty that makes it harder for parents to support their children’s learning in the home. I have seen the pupil premium used to support family learning schemes, and I have been impressed to see parents and children learning together.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way—I find it difficult not to refer to her as my right hon. Friend. Does she agree that there should be a role for Ofsted in assessing the efficacy of the pupil premium? Does she think that the chief inspector should take on that role?

I believe that Ofsted took on that role in its recent report. It has proved important to have those Ofsted inspections because, although it is right in principle to tell head teachers to spend the money in the way they think best, concerns were expressed in the first year that the pupil premium was being sidelined into other schemes rather than being used to support the learning of disadvantaged children. It is therefore important to have a separate section in the Ofsted report on how the pupil premium is being used, and the latest report shows that that is becoming effective. We have seen examples of governors getting really involved in tracking the use of the money and the outcomes for the children. We need that kind of whole-school involvement to ensure that we are properly tracking the progress of disadvantaged children.

The United Kingdom remains a highly unequal country. The poorer outcomes in key skills such as reading and spoken language that are experienced by children at the lower end of the income distribution scale contribute to unequal opportunities to do well in life. If we were to make progress in tackling this educational inequality, we would help to level the playing field so that every child had the opportunity to succeed. That matters for all of us. There is already some fantastic work going on in and out of schools across the country. This Government launched their social mobility strategy in 2011 with the aim of ensuring that everyone has a fair opportunity to fulfil their potential regardless of the circumstances of their birth. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission was established at the same time, but its reports continue to show how much more there is to do.

On Monday, a new report will be launched by a wide coalition of organisations, including Save the Children, Beanstalk, the National Association of Head Teachers, Bookstart, Teach First and many others. It is called, “Read on, get on: how reading can help children escape poverty.” I understand that it has many calls for actions and pledges from all political parties. Please read the report.

Order. We have four BackBench who wish to participate, plus the shadow Minister and Minister. I will set a time limit of six minutes on Back-Bench contributions. Of course if there are interventions and there is added time, it may be necessary to reduce the time limit, but I hope not. That leaves a reasonable time, hopefully, for the right hon. Lady to respond at the end of the debate. There is a six-minute time limit from now on.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I pay tribute to the work that the right hon. Lady has done on this matter throughout her time in this House, including the questions that she has raised as parliamentary champion for Save the Children. The Save the Children report “Too Young to Fail”, which she referred to at the beginning of her speech, is very powerful and reminds us of the scale of the challenge that we still face. The report says that by the time children are seven, nearly 80% of the later differences in GCSE results between better-off and poorer children have already been determined.

Two years ago, in 2012, one in seven of seven-year-olds—approximately 76,000 pupils across the country—was still not reaching the expected level in reading. As the right hon. Lady explained so powerfully, children from the poorest backgrounds are much more likely than their better-off peers to fall behind with their reading. As she said, this is not just an immediate challenge for education, but something that stores up problems later on. I am talking about the risks of crime, economic failure and behaviour issues later on in education.

Studies show that almost one in 10 of the 14-year-olds who had been very poor readers at the end of primary school became persistent truants compared with an average figure of around 2%. We know from Ofsted and others that the group that now faces the biggest challenges in literacy are white British children, particularly boys but also girls, and that is part of the challenge that we need to face.

I welcome what the right hon. Lady said about poverty and about the difference that good and outstanding schools make. I am proud of the schools in my constituency that buck the trend and deliver the best results in English and mathematics at age 11. That shows that with the right ethos and approach and high standards of teaching and learning in our schools, we can make a difference.

When Joe Anderson took over the leadership of Liverpool city council after the 2010 local elections, he invited my right hon. Friend Baroness Estelle Morris, the former Secretary of State, to lead a cross-party commission on the future of education in Liverpool.

Between 2000 and 2010, Liverpool’s results at both 11 and 16 improved dramatically. Estelle’s report has been entitled “From Better to Best”, making the point that although progress has been made, there is still a lot more that we need to do in Liverpool. One of her recommendations was that Liverpool should become the foremost reading city in the country and that schools and their partners should give priority to reading so that no child, if capable, would leave primary school unable to read. Out of Baroness Morris’s report, we have the “City of Readers” campaign, run jointly by the mayor, Liverpool city council, the Liverpool learning partnership, which brings together schools and other educationists across the city, and the Reader Organisation. The campaign seeks to fulfil the goal of making Liverpool the foremost reading city in the country.

The aim is partly to promote reading for pleasure for residents of all ages across the city but also to focus on the achievement gap that is at the heart of the debate today. There are many initiatives, none of which involves charges for parents or children, and the idea is to have wide access for the community as a whole. For example, this summer Liverpool had the “Book It!” summer school, devised for children who need support with reading to help them make the transition from primary to secondary school. That was a free summer school for local children, supported by the local authority and the Liverpool learning partnership.

There has been a big emphasis on using existing cultural events in the city to promote reading. The “Giant Spectacular” in Newsham park in my constituency earlier in the summer gave such an opportunity, with a focus on readings from Roald Dahl as well as of love letters from the first world war. The recent Liverpool international music festival held beach reads, encouraging families to enjoy reading together. Readers in residence schemes have been put in place whereby a reader from the fantastic Reader Organisation spends two months in schools reading with selected pupils who need extra support and devising groups to promote reading for pleasure. Many schools have been involved, including a number from my constituency, such as Holly Lodge, Mab Lane, Dovecot primary and Our Lady and St Philomena’s primary. There has been a focus on continuing professional development, in particular promoting reading for pleasure, and Liverpool has risen to the challenge of targeting those adults whose life opportunities are held back by illiteracy.

At the heart of that is social justice, and as the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said, this is not a new problem. If we can crack it and get it right, we will make a real difference to the life chances of many children and, in particular, children in some of the communities that I represent who often face great challenges from poverty and deprivation. Reading for social justice, reading for pleasure and reading as a crucial part of our economic future as a country—I hope Liverpool will have something to teach the rest of the country by being the city of reading.

It is a great pleasure to take part in the debate and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for securing it and giving such a powerful and morally charged opening address. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the former shadow Secretary of State, and I congratulate him on his speech and him and his noble Friend Baroness Morris on their efforts in Liverpool. That is just the kind of sustained focus that can enrich people’s lives and make a serious contribution to the economic success of the area. I also want to thank the Backbench Business Committee for choosing this issue for Members to discuss.

As has been mentioned, white working class children fare particularly badly. A central finding of the Select Committee on Education’s recent report “Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children”, published in June, was that

“the attainment ‘gap’ between those children eligible for free school meals and the remainder is wider for white British…children than for”

any other major ethnic group. Although, as has been said, boys perform worse than girls in any ethnicity or group, poor white children—that is probably a fairer expression than “working class”—both boys and girls have the lowest level of achievement in this country. That is something I want to highlight today.

My Committee heard that the gap is visible as early as age five. For white British children, who are the lowest-performing ethnic group in early years, the attainment gap already stands at 24% by that age. By the age of five, their future trajectory has been established. The gap then widens to 32.2% at key stage 4. Although the proportion of white British children on free school meals achieving the key stage 4 benchmark has almost doubled over the past seven years, it is still only around half as high as the number of non-free-school-meals white British children who succeed by that measure. That disparity is far too wide.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole set out, the foundations of that learning are the ability to read and getting that right in the early years. Too many children from disadvantaged homes are being failed—allowed to progress through school without the skills that they need to secure good jobs. By comparison, the achievement gaps for children of Indian, Bangladeshi and black African ethnicities have all shrunk. The free-school-meals performance gap for Indian children closed by almost 7% between 2006 and 2013, whereas for white British children it hardly altered. Those statistics show that improvement is none the less possible, but the challenge of assisting disadvantaged white children still requires serious attention.

The Government deserve credit. The Secretary of State and her predecessor have made it a mission to roll back what was termed

“the soft bigotry of low expectations”.

They have enabled schools to lengthen the school day. One of the strongest features of the previous Secretary of State was a stubborn refusal to accept that being born poor should mean that a child will fail at school. Efforts are being made on a number of fronts to challenge that. That is why the curriculum and accountability systems have been altered. There has been encouragement of the study of the more rigorous subjects through the English baccalaureate, because those more rigorous subjects were seen as having greater value; they acted as keys to other opportunity, and if they were closed off to the children of poorer families, they would close off opportunity.

I had concerns about the way in which the English baccalaureate was introduced, and whether it really would benefit the most disadvantaged young people, because I thought the most telling feature of our Committee’s report on the EBacc years ago was a graph that showed that despite a big drop in the number of young people from poorer families sitting the EBacc subjects, the number passing them had not altered a great deal. The fear was that although the intentions were sound, pushing lots of children into courses that they were not going to pass would do them little good.

However, the data that I have obtained from the Department show that as the proportion of free-school-meals pupils who were entered for the English baccalaureate doubled, from 9% to 18%, between 2011-12 and 2012-13, thanks to the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb)—properly returned to the Front Bench, I have to say—and his colleagues, so the proportion achieving the qualification rose from 5% to 9%. There has been an increase in quantity without a collapse in the percentage achieving a qualification. The introduction of the pupil premium and its extension to early years education are also important measures.

I have less than a minute to go, so I shall put aside my notes. Although we have frequently mentioned this, it deserves to be reiterated again and again that closing the gap is not just an educational question; it is not just that it is ridiculous that some children, just because their families are poor, should end up doing badly at school. It does not have to be that way, because we know that in other countries it is not that way. There is always a gap: if a child comes from a disadvantaged home, the likelihood is—not individually, but statistically—that there will be a gap, but it is greater in this country than in many others. We need to close it. Why do we need to close it? Obviously for educational reasons, but, as has been said, there is an economic impact. The figures, which are probably rather conservative, show that the impact of providing people with a higher-quality education is immense. In the couple of seconds I have left, I reiterate the importance of quality teachers and ensuring that they are distributed where they are most needed, and getting incentives right for them.

My apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker, for my slightly late arrival. When the annunciator screen suddenly changes, it is quite a trek to get here on time from the fifth floor of Portcullis House. I also apologise to the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who brilliantly achieved getting this debate.

I do not want to repeat what other people have said, so I shall rattle through some of my pet theories. Four of us in the Chamber served together on the Children, Schools and Families Committee; we know each other well. This terrible gap in achievement starts very young, and too often we are not honest with parents about what happens in the antenatal and perinatal period. Fetal alcohol syndrome is well known: a pattern of mental and physical deficiencies caused by drinking while pregnant, it is seen physically in stunted growth, small head circumference, skin folds at the corner of the eye, small eye openings, short nose and thin upper lip, and mentally in damage to the central nervous system and brain that can lead to the loss of fine motor skills, hearing loss and poor hand-eye co-ordination. Smoking and drug taking during pregnancy also have an effect. That is relevant to the achievement gap because all the evidence shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have parents who drank or smoked during pregnancy. We need better education and support for parents of all backgrounds, and we have to be absolutely blunt with our constituents—be honest about what damage is done before a child is even born.

As has already been said, early years stimulation is important. Many of us learned at the knee of Professor Kathy Sylva, of Jesus college, Oxford. She guided me around primary schools, which I knew little about. She taught me how to read a primary school and a classroom. She took us to Denmark and showed us how having highly motivated, well-paid and well-trained people in early years is absolutely brilliant, and when people are low paid, not trained and lacking in the relevant skills, they do not make the difference to children’s lives that they should do. Good, well-trained, well-paid staff—it is not rocket science. People say it is expensive, but if they can do it in Denmark, why can we not do it here?

I will finish on something that still bugs me from my days as Chair of the Children, Schools and Families Committee—something on which the present Chair of the Education Committee and I disagreed in those days. I am very worried that we do not know where a number of children in our country are or what stimulation and schooling they are getting. I am really worried about home schooling. In my constituency and others, I find a lax attitude to home schooling, and the ease with which people can say a child is being home schooled is dangerous territory. When it was confined to a small number of middle-class families who thought their child might be bullied at school and needed that home support, it was perhaps something we could tolerate, but I always thought that we ought to know where every child is in this country—

I will not, because I have only six minutes. I always thought that we ought to know where every child is in this country, how it is being supported, how it is being stimulated and how it is being treated. I am increasingly concerned about the large number of children now being home schooled. Their number is growing rapidly.

I am also worried that people from a strong faith background are choosing to use home schooling. I see it going on in my own community and know it is going on in other communities. I have a lot of evidence that the home school is not genuinely in the home, and the children are ending up in scruffy little back rooms being taught in a way that I do not approve of. I believe that we should know what children are being taught and how they are being taught.

I think the hon. Gentleman will get an extra minute if he is lucky. May I say to him that I do not believe he does have an evidence base of any sort for these slurs against home-educating families up and down the country? Why do we not seek a point of agreement that what we should do is try to establish a better evidence base about what is happening in home schooling? If we did that, we could talk on the basis of evidence, rather than slur and anecdote.

When the hon. Gentleman and I were on the Select Committee looking at this subject we disagreed, and we will continue to do so. The increasing evidence of the larger number of home schooled children is a worry in any society. This week, we had a statement on what was happening to children in one town. I believe we have a duty as parliamentarians to know where every child is, what the curriculum is and what the qualifications are of the people looking after them.

I do not want to make this too party political, but one of the things that we know worked with disadvantaged children was good Sure Start programmes and good children’s centres that were available to support those who did not have much of a home environment—who did not even have the English language at home, where the television was on in a foreign language—and went to school ill prepared to start learning. Those children’s centres were based on evidence and research by people such as Kathy Sylva and Naomi Eisenstadt. Where they are well staffed and well resourced, they make a magnificent difference to the lives of children in the very deprived communities we are talking about. My research shows that about a third have closed down since 2010, and many are under-resourced and do not have the facilities they used to have.

Any Government elected at the next election have to go back to the concept of children’s centres and Sure Start. They were not perfect and can be improved—everything can be improved—but I want to see little children in those children’s centres, run by highly qualified, highly motivated, well-paid people. When I first became Chairman of the Select Committee, I used to go to schools before the introduction of the minimum wage, and people said, “It’s terrible. The minimum wage will ruin early years care because we are only paying £1 an hour.” I believe that with the minimum wage, the transformation of early years education is halfway there, and we want to go the rest of the distance.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing it.

We must do everything we can for those who are struggling to read to ensure that every child has a chance to get on in life. This week, standard assessment tests data showed that 78% of children began secondary school with a good level 4b in reading. That is a welcome increase on last year’s 75%, but it still means that one in five children—over 100,000 in total—are not starting secondary school as good readers. These children, who are disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds, are at risk of being left behind and turned off from learning, and more likely to be limited in their education, training and employment opportunities later in life.

Closing the attainment gap with disadvantaged children and giving every child the chance to succeed is precisely why Liberal Democrats in government have prioritised the pupil premium, which is now providing an extra £2.5 billion to support disadvantaged children. This is enabling schools across the country to provide the additional help they need to narrow the attainment gap. Through the important work of the Education Endowment Foundation, head teachers can identify the most evidence-based interventions.

Before applying interventions to improve reading, it is vital that schools diagnose effectively the underlying issues, which could be related to comprehension, decoding words, or retention skills. Interventions that improve reading come in many forms, and several could have a measurable benefit, but a key question for heads is which interventions will provide the greatest impact based on the diagnosed need of the child. The skills of teachers in understanding the child’s needs and applying the most effective response should be developed within an effective programme of continuous professional development. Providing already experienced teachers with the opportunity to expand their knowledge and skills can only improve their ability to offer the most effective support at the right time for an individual child based on the evidence of what works.

There seems to have been an obsession lately with the belief that only one method of teaching reading is suitable for all children, in the form of phonics. Does my hon. Friend agree that in fact different children react differently—better and worse—to different forms of reading, and that we should leave it up to the head teacher and the teachers under his aegis to decide which is the best method rather than dictate it from Westminster?

Phonics provides an important way in which teachers can go about teaching, but it is only one part of the strategy. Ultimately, it is developing and fostering a love of reading that will help children to continue to enjoy life as a reader.

Those interventions must start earlier than at school, and, because early intervention is so crucial, from next year the early years pupil premium will provide £300 for every disadvantaged three and four-year-old. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole, I believe it should be increased and extended in future years. Helping children during the first stages of development helps them to gain the foundation of good language skills, which are essential in developing a curiosity that progresses to reading.

The importance of a high-quality early education sector cannot be overstated, led by professionals with the training and experience to know how best to help those in difficulty, and working with the parents to encourage support at home. That is why Liberal Democrats support raising the status of teaching professionals in early years settings and the introduction of early years teachers, and why we opposed relaxing child care ratios.

I have spoken mainly of interventions at school and early years settings, but getting children reading well is a challenge that necessitates efforts from all places—not just schools and early years settings, but, crucially, parents and wider communities. It is only through sustained and joined-up efforts by organisations and individuals that we will help every child to become a good reader. However much value we add through high-quality school and pre-school provision, support from family and the home environment, particularly in the early years, can make an even greater difference to children’s cognitive development. The earlier parents become involved in supporting their children’s literacy, the greater the impact will be. According to the National Literary Trust, even at age 16 parental interest in a child’s reading is the single greatest prediction of achievement.

Yesterday I met Save the Children to discuss its ongoing work in that area, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend. It has shown how families and communities can contribute to the development of good readers through its Families and Schools Together programme and the Born to Read partnership programme, which links trained volunteers to struggling readers.

In my own county of Norfolk, more than 10,000 children take part every year in the summer reading challenge at local libraries. That helps to prevent the summer dip in literacy skills, which is particularly damaging for disadvantaged children. It also encourages families to read with their children and create an inspiring home-learning environment.

This year Norfolk launched the Raising Readers campaign, which aims to bring the wider community on board. Backed by the Eastern Daily Press, one element of the campaign is to encourage business and voluntary groups to give staff two hours’ unpaid leave a month to visit schools and read with children. I was delighted to visit the Kid Ease nursery in my constituency a couple of weeks ago, during which I read to and with three and four-year-olds.

A range of measures, including the pupil premium, the expansion of free early years education and changes to school accountability measures, will make a difference to many young lives and narrow the unacceptable attainment gap holding back social mobility in this country. However, we require society as a whole to mobilise to address the challenge at hand and work together with parents and schools so that we can look forward to a time when every child will finish primary school as a good reader and go on to enjoy a lifetime of reading.

May I thank the Backbench Business Committee for choosing this debate and congratulate the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing it? I must confess that I had not realised that she was right honourable. I know that a very high percentage of Lib Dems have been knighted, received damehoods or been made right honourable, but in her case it is thoroughly deserved for the work she has done over many years in this House and her commitment to children’s issues, particularly that under discussion.

I also congratulate all the other speakers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who is my former boss, the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who is a former Chair of the Committee, and the hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright). They will forgive me if I do not discuss their contributions—as I was going to do—given the time available.

There are a number of points to make about the achievement gap in reading between poorer children and their better-off peers. First, it is a real problem. As the right hon. Lady said, current Government statistics show that one child in every four leaves primary school unable to read well, which means that each year 130,000 children are already behind when they start secondary school. Of those, a disproportionately large number are from disadvantaged backgrounds; the proportion who leave primary school unable to read well rises to 40% for children on free school meals. We know that it is a real problem, so it is right that we are debating it today and that we will continue to do so.

Secondly, it is not a new problem. Successive Governments have made efforts to close the achievement gap. The previous Labour Government made extensive investment, politically and financially, starting with the literacy hour and progressing to schemes such as Every Child a Reader. I could cite evidence of the success of those programmes, including from the Institute for Public Policy Research’s 2012 report, “A long division: Closing the attainment gap in England’s secondary schools”, which clearly showed that the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students narrowed between 2003 and 2011. Despite that, we know that poorer children are still much more likely to have fallen behind in reading by age 11 than their better-off peers.

Thirdly, the issue really matters. Being behind in reading at age 11 has a massive impact on an individual’s life chances, but it also has a massive impact on the country as a whole. More people who are out of work or on low pay are functionally illiterate—one in four in both instances. More pupils who are excluded from school lack literacy skills. More young offenders and prisoners are poor readers. The list goes on. We can reasonably extrapolate from those statistics and observations that at the macro level crime is higher and economic growth is lower as a result.

Fourthly, this issue has become party political. In my opinion, it should not be. I am not trying to blame anyone in particular for that phenomenon; we are all politicians and we all have to make our case in order to win power and govern in what we believe to be the country’s best interests. That is the trade we are in and, in my view, it is an honourable one. However, as a former school teacher from a working-class background, I hope that it is possible to reach a consensus on a longer-term approach to making progress on closing the achievement gap in reading.

Of course, many of the root causes of the problem lie outside the immediate influence of school. Many parents are poor readers, as we know from the statistics, and they are therefore not in a strong position to help their children at home, even when well motivated to do so. Fifthly, therefore, this issue is not just about schools. We need to develop policies to support parents and families outside schools, especially in the early years. We are concerned about the overall impact of Government policies, whether in relation to Sure Start, as was mentioned earlier, or financial support to poorer families. Whatever the level of spending available to any Government, we ought to be able to agree on the types of policies beyond school that will help to tackle the problem.

I noticed a press release today from the Sutton Trust pointing out new analysis showing that parents from the richest fifth of households are four times more likely to pay for extra classes outside school for their children than those from the poorest fifth. I think that we should certainly look at the policy implications for supporting initiatives to give extra support, outside school or at the end of school, to pupils from poorer backgrounds. There are quite a few good initiatives out there for that, and the pupil premium might be a good way of supporting them.

Sixthly, we should make every effort, as politicians, to evaluate what works, including in schools. That is why Opposition Front Benchers welcomed the setting up of the Education Endowment Foundation, which the hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) referred to. It gives us the opportunity to start doing what so many people tell us they want us to do in education, whatever political party we belong to: to set longer-term policies.

I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman would come to the end of his remarks, because I want to allow my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) to speak as well.

Order. I will be the one to decide that. The maths is that you have eight minutes each and there will then be a minute for the right hon. Lady.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was attempting to split the time as per your instructions. I do not have too far to go. I was about to try to bring a note of consensus to the debate before I was, if not rudely interrupted, certainly interrupted.

If we achieve such longer-term policies, they will bring the quiet revolution that we need, which will last and succeed, rather than a noisy revolution that is doomed not to last. One feature of the most successful jurisdictions in education, which is rarely mentioned, is the stability of their policies. Those policies are based on evidential consensus, rather than on faddish policy making. What matters in teaching children to read is what works.

Over a long period, politicians have spent too much time telling teachers how to do things and not enough time telling them what we want to be achieved and letting them use their initiative, innovation and skill to achieve it. That point relates to the importance of training, the quality of teachers, which has been mentioned, and continuing professional development. The quality of teaching is what will make the biggest contribution to tackling the reading gap in schools. I will conclude my remarks on that point to give the Minister and the mover of the motion time to finish the debate.

I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for that and apologise for intervening earlier.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for securing this debate on what is, in everyone’s view, the most important issue in education. It has been a very good and well-informed debate.

It cannot be acceptable that in 2014 almost 18,000 boys aged 11 cannot read any better than a seven-year-old, nor that in 2013, one in five pupils on free school meals did not achieve the expected standard in reading at key stage 1. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) said in an excellent contribution, poor reading can lead to behavioural problems, with one in 10 14-year-olds who are poor readers becoming persistent truants, compared with just 2% of other children.

Nothing in education is more important than making sure that every child can read. To paraphrase my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole, if you don’t learn to read, you can’t read to learn. Of course, our concern about reading standards should not simply be about the utilitarian benefits of reading. In and of itself, reading is one of life’s great joys. No child should be denied the chance to experience that joy for themselves, no matter where they live or what their background. She spoke about delving into other worlds. That is a good phrase to show why reading is so wonderful. We want all children to become fluent and enthusiastic readers. We want them to have the solid grounding in the systematic synthetic phonics that they need to decode the words on the page; the knowledge and appreciation to understand what they are reading; and the enthusiasm and experience to develop a lifelong love of books.

As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman)—I call him my hon. Friend because of our years of service together during his chairmanship of the Select Committee—these issues start very early. For some children, they start even before they are born. Research shows that nothing is more fundamental to a child’s later outcomes than early language development. It is the key to mastering communication and literacy later on. Of course, a huge part of that development depends on parents reading, singing and talking to their children. The early years sector also has a crucial role to play, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said. We know that high-quality early education from the age of two has a lasting impact on children’s development.

Nowhere is the need to get children off to a flying start more pressing than for disadvantaged children. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, there is an 18-month vocabulary gap between children on low incomes and children on high incomes when they arrive at school. If that is left unchecked, they continue to slip further and further behind. That is why, from this September, we are giving some 260,000 of the country’s most disadvantaged two-year-olds 570 hours of funded early education. That is double the number of children who were eligible last year.

Early years education has to be of a high quality. As my right hon. Friend said, quality is as important as quantity when it comes to early years education. We are also introducing reforms to the national curriculum, which come into force today, giving ever higher importance to reading and literacy.

Of course, all of that depends on children mastering the essential skill of decoding in the first place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) said, it is right that we should base our practice on what the evidence says works. International evidence shows that the systematic teaching of phonics is the most effective way to teach children to read. It helps all children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, become fluent readers.

We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the high-quality teaching of phonics in primary schools continues, which is why we have introduced the light-touch phonics check. In the pilot in 2011, 32% of children in the 300 schools involved passed that check. In 2012 that rose to 58%, and last year it had risen to 69% of all pupils meeting the expected standard. That was a significant rise, but just 56% of pupils on free school meals met that standard compared with 72% of other pupils—there was a 17 percentage point gap, which we need to close. Some local authorities, such as Newham, did extremely well in that check, with 76% of pupils passing, but others did not achieve so well, including some in affluent areas. I was encouraged by the initiative to improve reading in Liverpool that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby described. I am sure that we will see a significant rise in Liverpool’s phonics check results as the years go by. We want to ensure that all children are secure in their basic phonic reading skills.

One point on which I did not agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole was the starting date of formal education. There is no evidence that it is damaging. The Cambridge review of primary education in 2010 found no clear relationship between starting age and reading achievement, but some studies have found a small and temporary advantage to younger starting ages. My view is that delaying the start of formal education and the teaching of reading would widen the attainment gap, as children from more affluent and educated homes would learn to read at home and other children would not. That gap would continue to grow exponentially once they started their education. In fact, the majority of parents are happy for their child to begin school in the September following their fourth birthday. As we know, and as my right hon. Friend pointed out, children develop at different rates, particularly in the early years, and it is to be expected that some parents will feel that their child is simply not ready to start school when they are four. To allow for that, the admissions code makes it clear that parents can request that their child attends part-time or that their entry is delayed until they reach the point of compulsory education.

The Government’s overall plan for education is to raise academic standards, make every local school a good school and significantly improve standards of behaviour in our schools. We want to close the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds, not just in reading but across all academic subjects. However, reading represents the foundation of education, and we need all young people to be reading fluently and with increasing speed by the time they reach key stage 2. We need them to read voraciously throughout primary school, so that they not only become accomplished readers but develop the habit of reading for long stretches of time. That is how we can ensure that every young person achieves their full potential to be as well educated as their ability will allow. That means that they can benefit from all the opportunities that this country has to offer.

I thank all the Members who have contributed to the debate. We have achieved quite a lot in our limited time—perhaps we can get a high score for that. What pleases me most is that we have established that the issue matters, and that we all concur that an individual’s joy of reading is crucial, along with the other social and economic outcomes that we all want to see. Reading is so important that we need to look at the evidence and put as much emphasis as we possibly can on giving every child the best start in life.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the achievement gap in reading between poorer children and their better-off peers.