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House of Commons Hansard
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Primary Schools: Nurture and Alternative Provision
13 February 2019
Volume 654

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered nurture and alternative provision in primary schools.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue. I am also grateful to colleagues who have come along. On what is a standard Brexit day in the House, an education debate might be nice light relief for us all.

I got into politics to talk about education. As somebody who always wanted to be a teacher before accidentally finding myself here, I have the privilege of working on the Education Committee, which has undertaken—before my time on it—interesting inquiries on both alternative provision and the benefit of early intervention for the life chances of young people. It is important that we get the foundation of our education system right. In my view, education should always be our priority; without it, nothing else works. Without the right support early in children’s lives, the challenges and costs only grow over time.

This debate covers two specific areas: “nurture care”—I am grateful to nurtureuk for the information it shared with me on that—and alternative provision, each of which I will address in turn. Nurture care begins at home but is a crucial aspect in the early years of schooling, especially in deprived areas and for troubled families. Across my constituency, there are relatively high levels of family breakdown, mental health issues and deprivation, which is a perfect storm of challenges for both parents and children.

Those challenges have an impact on educational attainment. In Mansfield, 27% of children start primary school without the core abilities needed to succeed, including speech and language skills. I have seen this at first hand. Barely a week goes by when I do not visit a local school. I have seen five-year-olds still in nappies, unable to communicate properly, not knowing what a book is or how to hold one and unable to settle in primary school. The Government introduced free childcare, starting for two-year-olds, aimed at supporting such children sooner, but inevitably it seems that those most in need are the ones who do not take it up.

Children who have a good start in life tend to do better at school, attend lessons regularly and form meaningful friendships, and they are significantly less likely to offend or experience mental health problems in later life. Nurture care in schools ensures that children engage with more supportive experiences, giving them the necessary social and emotional skills to succeed and to develop resilience.

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The hon. Gentleman is making an incredible speech. I am proud to serve with him on the Education Committee. On the importance of nurture groups, does he agree that schools across our constituencies could be encouraged to introduce them if their extra efforts to be inclusive by doing so could be somehow acknowledged in Ofsted reports?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her kind comments. I absolutely agree. Recent Ofsted proposals to look more at the holistic support within schools, and not only at academic results, are positive. However, that could certainly go further, and this kind of provision could be included in that.

Mansfield has some great examples of schools that work to provide nurture care for their pupils. I particularly mention Forest Town Primary School, which supports its most vulnerable pupils through a nurture group. That group is almost a school within a school, providing holistic care to help children engage with education early.

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Last year, I went round several Coventry schools. Some were particularly short of resources to employ what we might call specialist teachers, for kids who have special needs. We found the same thing in nursery provision in some of the most deprived areas in Coventry. I do not want to get too political, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should try to address that somewhere down the line?

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I agree. There is certainly a case to be made for specialist training and for changes to the way we train teachers, which I know from discussions with Education Ministers that the Government have touched on.

That Forest Town centre is a separate building on the school site, allowing young people who find mainstream education challenging in those early years to be in a quieter, more personal and supportive environment, and to slowly build up to the full experience. Some have special educational needs or challenging situations at home, but all are able to grow at their own pace with extra support. It is a bit like alternative provision, but it is on site and is therefore more flexible, allowing the children to move in and out of that mainstream setting and to have a space to call their own within the school. Equally, they are not excluded from their social networks in the same way as if they were sent to off-site provision. The teachers at Forest Town do a fantastic job, and their hard work and supportive care makes a huge difference to those children’s lives.

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The different curricula offered to children in nurture care are more bespoke and suitable for those children. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the progress of those children should therefore not be judged by the same measures as their peers? They are getting a bespoke and individualised experience.

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I agree; there has to be some leeway. We often talk in this place about people’s aspirations for the future. For some people, that means undertaking A-levels and going to university, but for others it just means being able to live a relatively normal life, to get on in school and get into employment; the simpler things. There should be an acceptance of that in the way that we judge schools more broadly.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the Education Committee. I note that several Committee members are here. On his point about on-site organisation within a school, he will know that the Committee’s alternative provision report suggested that, whether it is learning support units or other organisations within schools, it is important for teachers to be properly trained to deal with children who have difficulties. At the moment, there are often supply teachers or temporary teachers in those organisations, who do not necessarily have those skills, which can make a world of difference. As he describes, it is so much better for a child to stay within the main school and to move between the mainstream unit and the separate unit, depending on his or her difficulties.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention and particularly thank him and the other members of the Select Committee for coming along today. I absolutely agree—I will touch on this later—that it is important that this is not exclusion from the classroom; it is a nurturing and supporting environment to help the children to succeed.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate. The fact that so many hon. Members have intervened indicates our interest. Like the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), I believe that there is a real need for the short-term, focused intervention that is found in nurture groups for children with particular social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Does he agree that we need to increase the availability of nurture groups, which will allow individual children to reach their potential, but also ensure that teachers are able to better spread their time and energy throughout classes in which children who are unable to learn in a typical classroom set-up are being taught in a dedicated way that benefits everyone?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Later I will touch on some statistics from Northern Ireland that I hope he will find interesting. I agree with him. The reason why the provision at Forest Town, in particular, works is that although it is in a separate building and environment, it is included within the school. That allows the teachers to engage with it and children to dip in and out, and allows the integrated and supported approach that the hon. Gentleman describes. It is incredibly beneficial.

The earlier we can get children and families engaged with nurture care, the better. Children learn best when they have strong self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and resilience. Nurture groups were first developed in London in 1969 by educational psychologist Marjorie Boxall. Large numbers of young children were entering primary school in inner London with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties, which led to high demand on special school places in particular. Marjorie Boxall understood that these children had not received early support and were not ready to meet the demands of primary school. As a response, nurture care was developed, and it has consistently proved to be an effective way of helping disadvantaged children.

Nurture groups tend to offer short-term, inclusive and focused intervention. The groups are classes of between six and 12 children, supported by the whole school—not just by specialist staff for that particular site, but by teachers from across the school and by parents, who are often included in the provision. Each group is run by a couple of members of staff. They assess learning, communication and emotional needs and try to break down the barriers to learning in the mainstream environment.

Crucially, the children who attend nurture groups remain an active part of their main class and their school. They are not excluded; they are not taken off site into alternative provision. They are able to engage in the classroom with their peers wherever that is possible and wherever they are comfortable. I will touch on this again later, but I strongly support programmes that allow children to remain in mainstream schooling to engage with their peers. That is better for the child and for the taxpayer wherever it is possible.

The relationship between staff and pupils in nurture groups provides a consistent and supportive example that children can base their own behaviour on. For so many children, role models are simply vital, and this caring approach can be hugely successful. It engages children with education, giving them a positive and enjoyable learning experience, and it can help where children do not get the same support at home.

Nurture groups have been working successfully for more than 40 years right across the UK. That statement is supported by a number of studies. Last year, in my constituency, I was pleased to meet nurtureuk, which is the national charity supporting this whole-school intervention. Its figures show that this provision works. One school in Kent running a nurture programme saw exclusions drop by 84%, which I am sure that hon. Members will agree is a remarkable figure.

A 2016 Queen’s University Belfast study also supports the effectiveness of nurture groups. It evaluated the impact of 30 such groups in Northern Ireland and found them to be cost-effective. In addition, although 77% of children who entered nurture groups exhibited difficult behaviour, that had reduced to just 20% at the end of the programme.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he share my concern in this respect? Nurture groups sound absolutely fantastic and definitely suitable for the children. I wonder whether we would find nurture groups and the approach of looking at the causes of that behaviour in schools that have zero-tolerance behaviour policies.

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I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. The point that she raises may not be one for discussion now, but it is certainly interesting. There absolutely does have to be a balance. I am a firm believer—having been to a variety of schools, with different atmospheres—in discipline and teaching children the value of that, but equally in respecting the needs particularly of vulnerable children in cases such as these. I do not think that nurture care has to be a formal thing, but I do think that there has to be that flexibility of approach to give a more bespoke experience to children who need it.

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The hon. Gentleman is very kind; he has been most gracious to us all in taking our interventions. He mentioned Queen’s University. I made a contribution in a debate last year and used the statistics to which he referred. When it comes to summing up and integrating all the information from across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there are many examples of good practice—the hon. Gentleman has used one from Belfast—and perhaps the Minister could take them on board.

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I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will do that. It is important to weigh up all this evidence when we are deciding where to put our time and energy in education. I certainly think that primary school and the early years environment should be a key priority.

Over the last three years, school exclusions have risen by more than 40%. If there is ever a time to invest in early intervention and nurture care, it is now. This early support, if properly managed, can set children up for their whole lives at school. Some will continue to need help, and it is especially important that those children who have needed this low level, ongoing support throughout their time at primary school do not then lose all this help when they go to secondary school; that transition is vital. We can be more inclusive, support children to stay in school, and reduce exclusions, but we have to invest in that both financially and with the time and training for teachers.

The links between school exclusion and social exclusion are well known. Children who are excluded from school are far more likely than their peers to have grown up in the care of the state or in poverty, and they go on to have much higher rates of mental illness and are more likely to end up in prison. That cycle needs to be broken somewhere. These children are the most vulnerable in our society and need greater support. We need to do more to provide a supportive environment and to ensure that our education system provides a positive, safe and reliable space for the most vulnerable children.

Nurture care can turn around a child’s life and help secure a stable future in adulthood. This is not a debate about financial efficiency, but I would like to highlight a 2017 Institute for Public Policy Research report, which argued that every cohort of permanently excluded pupils will go on to cost the state an extra £2.1 billion. The Government should support nurture programmes because that is the right thing to do, but I also argue that spending on nurture care is one of the best-value options for education expenditure. It is proactive, preventive support. Just as we are looking at prevention in the NHS long-term plan, so we should be looking at it in education.

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The hon. Gentleman is making an absolutely excellent speech. It is quite surprising for me to find myself agreeing so wholeheartedly with a Government Member, but the point that I would like to make is that there is not just a financial consideration, but an accountability consideration. Even if schools have the money that is needed to provide nurture care and even if, as the hon. Gentleman rightly suggests, they would have the money that would be used for exclusions to provide this early intervention and care, schools still might not want to do it unless the accountability system is changed to recognise this as good, worthwhile work.

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I absolutely agree. We mentioned briefly the changes in Ofsted’s approach that I think are positive. We could do more to highlight some of the good practice nationally and to incentivise schools to do this. We talk a lot in the Select Committee about special educational needs and disability provision. I think that schools would love to have more independence in relation to how they provide this kind of support. I think that, if it came with the right accountability and the right financial support, teachers would embrace it.

At this point, I would like to mention the Select Committee’s recent report entitled “Tackling disadvantage in the early years”, which notes that there is currently not enough of a clear strategic direction in early years education. The report argues that the Government have to remove barriers to progression for early years teachers to encourage the recruitment and retention of a skilled early years workforce. We need experienced teachers who can provide effective nurture care and help with the transition from nursery to primary school. I welcome the recent announcements on recruitment and retention from Government, which have also been welcomed by the schools that I have visited since. Similar incentives and support in relation to early years could be equally helpful.

The report praises maintained nursery schools for ensuring excellent outcomes for disadvantaged children and argues that we need to fully fund maintained nursery schools by the end of the financial year. This is a debate about primary education, but the earlier we can start support programmes for vulnerable children, the more effective that intervention will be. As one of my constituents working in the nursery sector recently said to me:

“The early years of life are the most important of life, the building blocks for their future, miss these bricks and it all comes tumbling down.”

I thought that that was quite a poetic way of describing it.

The report discusses the importance of a strong home learning environment and of reviewing the evidence in relation to interventions that support parents and families in creating a positive home learning environment. It is important that we continue to review best practice and share information about the forms of nurture care that are the most effective, and that they engage with parents to help to provide that.

Let me turn to alternative provision more broadly. It is often seen as somewhere only the worst behaved pupils should go, but alternative provision is much more than that and, done properly, can provide excellent education. It is important to remember that alternative provision also covers education for pupils who cannot attend mainstream education for a variety of reasons, including health reasons, and is not only for those who have been excluded from school. It includes pupil referral units, alternative provision academies, free schools and other settings, and there are some excellent examples of settings that provide tailored education to the pupils who have struggled the most in mainstream education. The alternative school in Accrington, for example, offers a holistic and flexible full-time school experience, designed to respond to the needs of young people who are unable to remain in mainstream school. It caters for up to 90 pupils a year spread across three campuses in the north-west. It specialises in a curriculum designed specifically for people aged eight to 18 who require that smaller, more personalised and individual approach to their education. I think that is a positive path and example to follow.

Alternative provision, when done right, works well, but too often it is seen as a dumping ground for difficult children—a way to get them out of a school. We need that narrative to change. As I noted earlier, I believe that schools should try to keep children in a mainstream setting where possible. The correlation between exclusions and problems in later life is significant. I have raised concerns previously with the Secretary of State in the Education Committee about interventions such as isolation.

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rose

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I know the hon. Lady feels strongly about that. I will come to her in a second. When done right, such interventions can be helpful, but too many reports suggest that children are taken out of a classroom not to be supported, but to be kept out of the way.

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I was going to intervene just before the hon. Gentleman mentioned isolation rooms. One of the points in our Education Committee report was about buddying a mainstream school with an alternative provision school, so that teachers can share knowledge and expertise. I know that some initiatives are now happening, whereby mainstream teachers can teach in special schools for a while, and vice versa, so that they have that shared knowledge.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about isolation rooms. There is a world of difference between nurture and an isolation room, where children get no education whatsoever, but are made to sit there with a sheet to occupy them, not educate them, yet we wonder why the children have not made any progress at the end of that period.

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I agree with the hon. Lady, and the Government have promoted partnership working between schools in some ways. We see that work between schools in the independent sector and comprehensives. I welcome that and I think teachers would welcome the opportunity to get a broader experience, and the training and development that comes with that.

Providing proper support to children, by not isolating but helping them, would be more effective and cheaper in the long-run than exclusion, but schools need investment to be able to do that. I would like to see alternative provision run more along the lines of a nurture care programme, where possible. Obviously, I acknowledge that separate settings can be the most appropriate option for some pupils. However, where possible, it would be good to do more to include, rather than exclude, pupils who are struggling in mainstream education. I would also like to see a focus on reintegration. Just as nurture groups tend to work as a short-term approach to alternative provision, rather than being a final, permanent destination for pupils, there should be a way of tailoring support with a view to bringing that child into mainstream education, at least for part of the time, further down the line.

The figures show that more than 77% of pupils in AP settings have special educational needs, so it is important to look at special educational needs and disability provision, and how it can effectively help pupils at risk of dropping out of mainstream education.

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My hon. Friend mentioned children with special educational needs. Does he agree that there is a significant problem when something like 4,000 children with special educational needs are excluded each school week? Unfortunately, they often go into a postcode lottery of poor alternative provision, if they get any at all.

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I absolutely recognise that challenge. Our existing inquiry on SEND in the Education Committee highlights the postcode lottery element and the confrontational experience that many parents face in trying to get the support that they need. While it seems that a lot of those involved have recognised the will of the legislation and the ideas behind it to be right, there is a practical barrier, which causes problems so that it does not always offer the support that it should.

The Government’s vision for alternative provision, outlined last spring, was largely positive, with a commitment to ensuring that it becomes an integral part of the education system, with high-quality outcomes for pupils. It is positive that the Government increased funding for higher needs and alternative provision in Nottinghamshire. The budget has risen from just shy of £60 million in 2017 to £64 million this year. That is welcome and it will have a positive impact on pupils in my constituency. However, there is still far more to do. The SEND challenge is probably the biggest problem we face in our education system. It is not simple to solve, and it affects mainstream schooling and budgets across the board.

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I visited a school in my constituency, St Anne’s Infants School, which won the Marjorie Boxall Quality Mark Award for its nurture group in 2016. I appreciate the really good work it does. Yesterday, I was in a Westminster Hall debate on special educational needs. There are real concerns around the country about the lack of funding for that. The hon. Gentleman just mentioned integrating this into the education service. It should not just be excellent groups that are getting excellent provision in some schools. We need to ensure that children—whether they have emotional or physical needs, or just need a decent education—get support in a joined-up way.

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Absolutely. I welcome some of the things that the Government have done in recent pilots for mental health support in schools, and some of the positive things that are happening there, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right that that needs to happen across the board. Every child who has that need should be able to access the support, rather than its being a postcode lottery, as has been described.

The quality of alternative provision is too variable across the country. While some settings have brilliant teachers trying to turn around lives, others do not have that focus, and the most vulnerable pupils often do not get the education that others do. Both in SEND and behaviour management, one size does not fit all, so schools need to find and offer the right intervention.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to look at ways in which the Government can do more to support nurture provision in primary schools, with a view to offering early support, particularly in deprived areas that are most in need, helping more children to stay on in mainstream education and cutting the number of exclusions, thereby giving children in my constituency better life chances, as well as saving the taxpayer money in the long-term. I would like to see more of that supportive focus within alternative provision, too: support for schools to have more in-school alternatives to exclusion or outside provision. I believe that that approach is one of the most effective ways to support vulnerable pupils.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this important debate. It is good to see so many fellow colleagues from the Education Committee in attendance.

Nurture groups are recognised as the best way forward for children, especially those from a disadvantaged background. In Scotland, we have a system that we call “Getting it right for every child”, which is the basis of how children are put at the centre of any educational initiative. Having been a member of the local education committee when I was a councillor, I can tell hon. Members that this GIRFEC policy is well thought of, well established and well used across Scotland.

Nurtureuk has pointed out that there are more nurture groups in Scotland, especially in Glasgow, Angus and West Lothian, than in the rest of the UK, which sends a signal that education in Scotland is setting about things in the best way possible. Indeed, the First Minister has made the closing of the attainment gap—the gap between children from the poorest and richest households in Scotland—the cause célèbre of this particular term of office.

All children and young people deserve to get the support they need to reach their full learning potential. The evidence for the use of nurture groups to do that is long-established. Children and young people should learn in the environment that best suits their needs, whether that is in a mainstream or special school setting. Ninety-seven per cent. of children with additional support needs are educated in mainstream schools in Scotland. The Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 places duties on education authorities to identify, provide for and review the additional support needs of their pupils.

In my time on the Education Committee, in particular in this Session, as my colleague the hon. Member for Mansfield said, there has been a lot of focus on SEND issues. We are still taking in evidence. I do not think that there is any debate or difference across the Chamber about the need to focus on giving all our young children the best possible start in their educational life, even if they come from a background that does not lead them to know what education should be like.

The phenomenon is not new. I remember many years ago talking to a teacher who could not believe that young children were coming into school unable to hold a book. If that was 40 years ago and that experience is replicated across the UK, it must be even worse now. Children might well be able to use a tablet, but many of them do not understand the value of books.

Nurture groups help to give children, teachers and the support-for-learning assistants in schools a real insight into pupils and how they can best develop. They also help to develop resilience in children. Nurture UK defines the outcomes from nurture groups as greater academic attainment and improved behaviour. As we all know, if children are to learn, they need to be in the right state to behave and to sit and listen. A large mainstream classroom is not necessarily the best place for that to happen; nurture groups are typically much smaller. As my friend and colleague on the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Mansfield, has said, nurture groups can be on site. It is important that children feel part of the main school, because that helps them to improve their behaviour.

Nurture groups also help to improve attendance and reduce exclusions, which is an important point, and they can help to provide a whole-school ethos. It should not simply be about those children in a small group in one area of the school. Where nurture groups work well, the whole-school ethos is affected and improved. I can give a simple example. My granddaughter, who is educated in Perth, comes home and says things such as, “I can’t do this yet,” which is a huge improvement on “I cannae dae that”—full stop—which I used to hear from students who came to me in further education in West Lothian. When people start to nurture young children by saying simple things like that, it really improves their life chances.

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On school ethos, is the hon. Lady as concerned and deeply disturbed as I am by recent comments in the press about “flattening the grass” policies? The CEO of one academy trust advocates going into assemblies and bullying and humiliating a child until they are in tears as a way to intimidate the rest of the children into silence. Does she agree that that is not the kind of ethos that we want to promote in our schools—one where children are bullied or shamed until they cry if they do not behave themselves?

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I totally agree that that is not the way that children should be helped to learn.

I do not want to stray too far from the point, but I did not know much about the English education system until I joined the Education Committee in 2015. It was a steep learning curve and I still struggle with the idea that schools are not run by local authorities, that different types of schools can be run differently, and that some schools are seen as “good” by Ofsted because there are not many exclusions and because they get high academic results. I agree with other hon. Members that it is better for everyone in the community, and for society at large, to have children who come out of school as better people, more enriched, curious and ready to learn in different ways, rather than simply being able to pass a standard exam.

In my experience teaching in further education colleges, I saw many children who were damaged by a school system that did not suit them. I am not saying that the Scottish ethos and the Scottish way are perfect, because no education system can be, but putting children at the heart of the education system and committing to getting it right for every child is the best way forward. I would like to hear the Minister’s views on that.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for securing the debate, and the other hon. Members who have contributed.

We would welcome any proposal that supported children struggling with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, especially when that approach is backed up by more than two decades of research and more than 60 academic studies that show its positive effects. Inclusion is at the heart of the nurture model and there is a wealth of evidence that it works.

In the early days of the coalition, the then Secretary of State for Education set the continued direction of travel when he stated that he wanted to remove the “bias towards inclusion”. Yesterday, the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, the right hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), said:

“Inclusion is…not always the right answer for children or their families.”—[Official Report, 12 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 310WH.]

Today, however, a member of the Minister’s party has brought forward this debate about the virtues of an inclusive policy. I hope that this Minister can clear up the confusion and clarify the Government’s policy on inclusion.

Nurture groups that are delivered in schools and supported by a teacher and teaching assistant cost about £10,000 to 12,000 per student and in excess of £120,000 per year. In the current climate, with cuts to schools’ budgets of £1.7 billion coupled with a continually falling rate in real terms of pupil premium moneys since 2015, it is hard to see how the groups can be sustained, let alone expanded.

In fact, since 2011, at least 100 nurture groups have had to close as a result of a lack of funding. In a recent survey by the National Education Union, more than three quarters of teachers confirmed that there were now fewer support assistants and teaching assistant posts.

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I was going to mention teaching assistants in my last intervention, because they are so important. For a child who needs extra attention and one-to-one support, whether because of SEND or emotional difficulties, they can often be the difference between their being able to stay in the class or needing to go to a nurture group. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a false economy to slash schools’ funding so that they cannot employ teaching assistants any more?

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend. In a recent survey, almost 100% of teachers said that the level of staff cuts was having a negative effect on the support that they can give pupils who need extra help.

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One thing that we would perhaps all agree on is that the pupil premium has been effective in providing additional money and giving teachers additional support. Does my hon. Friend share my significant concern that some multi-academy trusts are operating their own funding formula and giving a school less core funding? They are saying to that school, “You get lots of funding through your pupil premium, so you don’t need as much core funding.” Within each multi-academy trust, the bulk of the money is not going where it should—to the school with the high pupil premium—but being reallocated. Does she agree that that is wrong?

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It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend that I agree that it is wrong. There is a lot of mystery surrounding exactly where some of the pupil premium money is going. Perhaps the Minister can shed some light on that when he sums up.

Early intervention works. In the past, Ofsted has praised nurture groups as having “highly significant and far-reaching” positive impacts on young children and their families. Nurture groups have the potential to be part of a wider holistic framework that supports children with additional difficulties, but their value is not being met with investment or support from the Government, who do not see the value of early help. That is evidenced by the fact that in the past five years, local authority early intervention budgets have been slashed by more than £740 million, 1,200 Sure Start centres have gone and budgets for children’s centres across England have decreased by 42%.

As I know from my previous career, for nurture groups to succeed there needs to be an acknowledgment that the work being completed in the school environment needs to be supported at home, and that often the children who need the support of a nurture group are also having a difficult time at home. Historically, those children would have received help at home to support the help that they were receiving in school from statutory children’s services in the shape of child in need plans, but savage local government cuts under the misguided mantra of austerity have led to such services being beyond breaking point, with more than 400,000 children now classed as in need. Furthermore, another 1,700 children are being referred for extra help every single day and there is a looming £3.1 billion funding gap for local authorities by 2025. As this situation is coupled with extensive year-long waiting lists for child and adolescent mental health services, it is easy to see why so many children are slipping through the net.

The Education Committee’s recent report, “Forgotten children”, criticised the Government for their

“strong focus on school standards”,

which

“has led to school environments and practices that have resulted in disadvantaged children being disproportionately excluded”,

putting pressure on an already struggling alternative provider sector, where the number of children with SEND has increased by more than 50% in recent years. Pupils who are claiming free school meals remain over-represented in exclusion figures. Over 140,000 of them faced fixed-period exclusions during 2016 and 2017.

Nurture groups and other initiatives can prevent exclusions. As has already been stated, one primary school has said that its nurture group reduced its exclusion rate by 84%. With all of that in mind, can the Minister let us know when the delayed findings of the Timpson review will be revealed?

It really is time that the Government looked more holistically at children’s needs, at early intervention and at models that actually work. Last year, more than 120 national organisations wrote to the Prime Minister, stating unequivocally that this Government are ignoring children right across the board. I hope that the Minister can offer some assurances in his response today that those organisations will not have to repeat that exercise this year.

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It is a pleasure, Sir Christopher, to serve under your chairmanship—again, I think. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), on not only securing the debate but opening it so effectively and with such an interesting speech.

All schools, including primary schools, should be safe environments, with good behaviour, where pupils are respectful of one another and able to fulfil their potential. An effective whole-school culture should set high expectations and standards for all pupils, while providing support for the most vulnerable children, including those with mental health issues, those in care and those with special educational needs and disabilities.

As the Secretary of State set out in his speech to the Resolution Foundation last July, one of our Department’s top priorities is to create a system that helps the most disadvantaged children to reach their full potential. So the question is: how do we ensure that we give children the best start in life?

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s argument that too many children still fall behind with their communication and language skills early on. We also know that it is hard to close the gaps that emerge. Some 28% of children finish their reception year still without the early communication, language and literacy skills that they need to succeed. The Secretary of State has therefore set out his ambition to halve that figure by 2028. To support that ambition, we are investing more than £100 million in our social mobility programme, which includes £20 million for high-quality, evidence-based training and professional development for pre-reception early years staff in disadvantaged areas; £26 million for a network of English hubs, to promote effective early language and effective reading; and £10 million to understand what works, which will be deployed in partnership with the Education Endowment Foundation.

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Unfortunately, the Minister has failed to address the other point that the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) made, which was about children with social and emotional problems. The Minister briefly mentioned children with SEND and children starting from a delayed academic standpoint, but what support will this Government give to children with social and emotional problems? Is it using initiatives, pilots or anything?

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I will come to that point in a moment; if the hon. Lady will be a little patient, I will address that and the issue of mental health, in particular.

Of course, what happens in early years settings is only part of the story; what happens in the home is central to children’s outcomes. We can do more to ensure that all parents have access to the best advice, tools and resources to support their children in the earliest years. That is why we are inviting a broad range of organisations to come together as part of a coalition to explore innovative ways to boost early language development and reading in the home. Following the successful home learning environment summit in November, we are developing a campaign that will be launched later this year.

It is clear that early education—from the age of two—has long-lasting benefits for children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield intimated in his speech. It helps to promote a child’s physical, emotional, cognitive and social development. However, as he suggested, evidence shows that, on average, disadvantaged families are less likely to make use of formal childcare provision than more advantaged families.

That is why, in September 2013, the Government introduced 15 hours of funded early education for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. Eligibility was expanded in September 2014 to include children from low-income working families, children with a disability or special educational need, and children who have left care. This early education programme for two-year-olds is popular with parents. In January 2018, local authorities reported that 72% of eligible parents nationally had taken up their entitlement to a place, which was up by 1% from January 2017, and take-up of the free entitlement for two-year-olds in Nottinghamshire is in line with the national average.

However, there is still more work to do, which is why we have commissioned our national delivery contractor, Childcare Works, to support local authorities to increase take-up of the offer for two-year-olds among disadvantaged parents, in particular. We have also commissioned Coram Family and Childcare to support the take-up of the free entitlements through their Parent Champions programme.

Of course, nursery schools also have an important part to play in ensuring excellent outcomes for disadvantaged children. I realise that there is uncertainty over the future of funding for maintained nursery schools. The current arrangements that protect maintained nursery schools’ funding provide nearly £60 million of additional funding a year, but they are due to end in March 2020, which is of course the end of the spending review period. This supplementary funding was a temporary arrangement, to ensure that maintained nursery schools did not miss out when we introduced the early years national funding formula, and we need to decide what should happen when that supplementary funding ends. As preparation for the forthcoming spending review, we are considering how best to handle transitional arrangements for a number of areas, including maintained nursery schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield talked about supporting children with special educational needs. The SEND reforms introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014, which came into effect in September 2014, brought in a new approach to supporting children and young people with SEND from birth to the age of 25 across education, health and social care. Our vision for children with SEND is the same as that for all children and young people: that they achieve well in their early years, at school and in college, that they find employment, that they lead happy and fulfilled lives, and that they exercise choice and control in their lives.

Those reforms represented the biggest change to SEND provision in a generation, and they are intended to improve the support available to children and young people with SEND by more effectively joining up services for children from birth to the age of 25 across education, health and social care, and by focusing on positive outcomes for education, employment, housing, health and community participation.

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On the point about SEND reforms, could the Minister shed some light on why children with SEND remain stubbornly over-represented in exclusion figures, and are six times more likely than their peers to be excluded? The system just is not working.

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That is precisely why we asked Ed Timpson to look at why certain groups in society are more likely to be excluded than others, and he will publish his report soon.

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I thank the Minister for his comments so far. I think I mentioned in my speech the positive intentions of the 2014 Act, which has been broadly well received—including in the evidence that the Education Committee received—in terms of the reasons behind it and its aspirations. When he talks about working together across different sectors and bringing different services together, does he recognise the element that is often raised as the problem, which is the challenge that local authorities face in getting the health sector genuinely to engage and to fulfil its commitments in education, health and care plans and in relation to the 2014 Act? How can we work to get those health bodies involved and more actively engaged in supporting children within SEND provision?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those are the challenges that local authorities face, and we are continually working with them to improve the quality of the provision in their areas. As for SEND budgets, which I will come on to, we are concerned about the high needs budget for schools. That is why the Secretary of State recently announced an extra £250 million of funding—£125 million in this financial year and £125 million in the next financial year—to help local authorities with their high needs budget. I think that has been welcomed by local authorities.

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I agree with hon. Members that the 2014 Act raised aspirations, but there were a few issues with it. First, it raised the entitlement to the age of 25, without any additional funding between the ages of 18 and 25 to meet that aspiration. It also hugely raised parents’ aspirations about what they are entitled to, without the ability to provide that entitlement. That is why parents are now taking local authorities to court, with huge, burgeoning costs in tribunal and lawyer fees. When we see the tip of the iceberg—those parents who have the social capital and knowledge to fight this—we know that there are thousands of parents underneath whose children’s needs are just not being met. I say to the Minister that this is more than just a small issue: a huge, fundamental rethink is needed in SEND.

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Those issues, of course, are not new. They have existed for as long as I have taken a specialist interest in education; they were certainly key issues during the last Labour Government. One reason why we introduced the 2014 Act was to try to address the disputes that were taking place in tribunals, and to ensure much more co-ordination between the different services. We have increased funding for high needs education from £5 billion in 2013 to £6 billion this year, with the additional £250 million bringing the total up to £6.3 billion by next year.

We understand the pressures on high needs budgets, and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) is absolutely right that one of the reasons for those pressures is the extension of the entitlement to the age of 25 for children with special educational needs and disabilities. However, we do not apologise for that, because those young people need that support. [Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle has made many interventions. The Minister is trying to respond to her points, and all she is doing is chuntering.

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I understand the hon. Lady’s passion about these issues, but she should not underestimate the passion that also exists on the Government Benches, or the action that we have taken since being in office to address those difficult issues and provide the funding to deal with them.

We understand that at the moment, local authorities feel under pressure in their high needs budget; the extra payment of £250 million aims to address that pressure, but we accept that it will not deal with the issue fully. We are trying to provide more capital for local authorities, to enable them to restructure their special educational needs provision. For example, as well as the age extension, which has been a pressure on local authorities’ budgets, there is the issue of the costs for some children with very severe educational needs. Independent school provision can be very expensive, and it is sometimes more cost-effective for local authorities to provide special educational needs schools or units of maintained schools in their own borough. We have allocated significant capital to enable that to happen.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield said, much of the support work for pupils will take place within the school setting. For instance, when a school identifies a pupil who has special educational needs, they should take action to remove the barriers that stand in the way of that child’s education, and put effective special educational provision in place. That SEN support will often take the form of a cycle through which decisions and actions are revisited, refined and revised with a growing understanding of the pupil’s needs and of what supports the pupil in making good progress. That is known as a graduated approach.

One of the types of intervention that some schools choose in order to support pupils with social, emotional or behavioural needs, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield has talked about in detail—I said to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle that I would come to this issue—is the use of nurture groups. As my hon. Friend has said, nurture groups offer an in-school, short-term, focused intervention strategy that is aimed at addressing barriers to education arising from behavioural, social or emotional difficulties, and doing so in a supportive manner. It is for individual schools to decide which interventions to offer, and the best and most cost-effective potential for providing support for an individual pupil’s needs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield mentioned, the Forest Town Primary School in his constituency is rated “good” by Ofsted. It is an example of a school that uses nurture groups to support its pupils. In its March 2017 inspection report, Ofsted praised that school’s positive culture and its determination that all its pupils succeed. Ofsted also highlighted Forest Town’s work to promote high levels of attendance, its timely adoption of interventions for different pupils, and its support for vulnerable pupils with complex needs. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the teachers at Forest Town and elsewhere for the important work that they do for those children.

All children have the right to a school environment that is safe, and conducive to effective teaching. Sometimes that will mean headteachers taking the difficult decision to exclude a pupil, and I fully support headteachers using exclusion where that is warranted. However, exclusion from school must not mean exclusion from education: when a child is excluded, suitable full-time education must be arranged from the sixth school day of exclusion. The Timpson review is considering how schools use exclusion and how that impacts on all pupils, but in particular why some groups of children, such as those with special needs, are more likely to be excluded from school.

Alternative provision is the system that is in place to educate those pupils who are unable to attend mainstream school. It is vital that those pupils who enter alternative provision following exclusion have access to a high-quality education, to help every child to achieve their potential. Local authorities or schools as commissioners must have regard to our statutory guidance, which states:

“Good alternative provision is that which appropriately meets the needs of pupils”

who require its use,

“and enables them to achieve good educational attainment on par with their mainstream peers.”

That guidance also sets out that the personal and social needs of pupils should be properly identified and met in order to help them overcome any barriers to attainment, and that AP should aim to improve pupil motivation, self-confidence, attendance, and engagement with education.

There are some excellent examples of AP settings that not only have high standards for behaviour, progress and attainment, but have strong therapeutic interventions in place to support pupils of primary school age. Ofsted’s report on the Hawkswood Primary pupil referral unit noted:

“Pupils understand the need to manage their own behaviour, and they are able to reflect on the choices they make. This is because boundaries are consistently applied and expectations are very high.”

One parent was moved to tell inspectors that the school had “made my son respectable.”

Another example is the Family School, an AP free school that opened in September 2014. Its ethos is built around supporting pupils to cultivate a productive lifestyle, personal resilience, and the values required to become responsible members of society. An innovative aspect of that programme is that it requires a parent or significant adult family member to participate in the classroom with their child. The focus is on families helping themselves and each other to create the conditions and changes necessary, so that children can resolve their problems and be better equipped to return to school, which I know is something that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield is concerned about.

In both the schools that I have cited, a high proportion of pupils are successfully reintegrated into mainstream schools. We are determined to ensure that every AP setting is as good as the good examples that I have cited, and that their best practice is shared. As I set out in the AP vision document that we published last March, we want to make sure that the right children are placed in the right AP, and that they receive a high-quality education and achieve meaningful outcomes after leaving alternative provision. That is supported by a £4 million innovation fund, which includes projects that have a focus on reintegration.

In closing, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield and other hon. Members who have participated in today’s debate that this Government are determined to do all that we can to support young people in achieving their potential, whether by providing continued support for early years services, supporting mental health services, reforming the special educational needs system or providing highly effective alternative provision where necessary.

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I am grateful to hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, particularly those from the Education Committee. They show a clear passion for the subject and for supporting young people. That is particularly so in the case of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who spoke with her usual passion for supporting the most vulnerable people in our society.

I was pleased to hear the Minister’s response, which made it clear that supporting disadvantaged people and a commitment to social mobility are key priorities for Government. He highlighted investment in many different areas, which is welcome. I would like to see that investment going directly to schools, and for schools to be given the ability to make independent decisions more often about personalised interventions for our children. I recognise the positive aspirations of the SEND reforms that the Minister talked about and the 2014 Act, and I look forward to the outcomes of the Timpson review.

I also thank the Minister for his kind words about Forest Town Primary School, which I am sure will make those there very happy. It is an excellent provision and there are a number of such schools across my constituency. I hope we can meet the Minister’s expectations with positive alternative provision examples. They should be encouraged, matched and talked about across the rest of the country.

I recognise the work that the Minister does behind the scenes making the case for education with the Treasury in terms of the forthcoming spending review. That is difficult in the current climate, and I hope he continues to make that case. If I can help him in any way with making the case for education’s being a huge priority for the rest of this Parliament, I certainly will. It would be very welcome. I thank everyone for their contributions. In particular, I thank the Minister for his time and you, Sir Christopher. It has been a pleasure.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered nurture and alternative provision in primary schools.

Sitting adjourned.