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Disadvantaged Children: Attainment Gap

Volume 656: debated on Monday 11 March 2019

Our reforms, backed by the £2.4 billion pupil premium, have helped schools to narrow the disadvantage attainment gap by 13% at age 11 and 9% at age 16 since 2011.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Research shows that when children fall behind in the early years it is incredibly difficult for them to catch up. Will he advise me as to how his Department is supporting disadvantaged children in those crucial early stages of education?

Of course, my right hon. Friend is correct on this, which follows on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). We are investing more than £100 million in our early years social mobility programme, including for professional development for early years practitioners and in grant support for the home learning environment, as I was outlining. Across the country, more than 150,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds benefit from the 15 free hours entitlement, 540 of whom are in the Bexley local authority area.

Quite a few children from disadvantaged backgrounds in my constituency start school with English as a second language. That is one reason why my constituency ranks relatively low on reading skills and in social mobility indices. What is the Secretary of State doing to enhance English-speaking skills in the very early years at nursery and in primary school?

My hon. Friend is correct about this; at the early years foundation stage, providers have to make sure that there are sufficient opportunities for children whose home language is not English to learn and reach a good standard in the English language.

Rural poverty means that children in north Northumberland are doubly disadvantaged in terms of educational opportunities. Headteachers such as Nicola Mathewson at Rothbury First School, in my most sparsely populated rural community, are struggling to balance budgets because of the apprenticeship levy forced on them there. This money cannot be spent on a teaching assistant to help with reading or maths. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can free up these funds by correcting what I assume was an oversight in respect of excluding small rural schools when the apprenticeship levy framework was put together?

Of course, I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how we can make sure that apprenticeships do work for the Rothbury First School and others in her constituency. Local authorities, which are the levy payers in this case, should ensure that schools can benefit from apprenticeships; they can combine the levy across schools or share apprentices to ensure that the money is best spent.

As the Secretary of State will be aware, one institution that does close the disadvantage attainment gap in the early years is our valued maintained nursery schools. As hundreds of headteachers gather in Parliament today to lobby their MPs before we go on a march to Downing Street, may I, first, pay tribute to the children’s Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), for securing the down payment of £24 million for these maintained nursery schools? May I also ask the Secretary of State to redouble his efforts and work across government to make sure they have a long-term, secure funding stream?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words about the schools Minister. [Interruption.] I mean the children’s Minister. Did I say schools Minister? He is also very good. I do recognise the particularly important place that maintained nursery schools have. With this recent announcement, local authorities can plan with confidence for the full academic year. As the hon. Lady knows, we are also doing further work to look into the value added and additional services that maintained nurseries provide.

Will the Secretary of State listen to a little bit of advice? A lot of people in the educational world want him to be a big beast. They want to know what he stands for and what he is passionate about. If he cannot be passionate about identifying which little children have talent but are lost to the system by the time they get to 11, he will be nothing. Why does he not take it seriously, bring back children’s centres and early years support, and do something about underprivileged children as early as possible? Be a big beast!

Wow. I believe my commitment to social mobility and closing the disadvantage gap is strong. I used to chair the all-party group on social mobility before I came into this job, and believe that social mobility is at the very heart of what we do. It is the core purpose of the Department for Education to ensure that every child, whatever their background, has the maximum opportunities available to them. I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that since the party of which he is a member was last in government, we have narrowed the disadvantage attainment gap at every stage—from nursery to primary, through secondary and into higher education.

18. The average student support in Scotland was up 1.4% in 2017-18. Does the Secretary of State agree that the SNP Scottish Government’s approach of supporting students, rather than charging prohibitive fees, explains why in Scotland the gap between students from the most and the least deprived communities achieving a positive destination has halved since 2009-10? (909693)

It may come as no surprise to anyone at all that I am not about to commend the Scottish Government for their approach. Actually, in the last few years England has seen record rates of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds being able to go to university. We need to work further on not only access but successful participation, bringing down drop-out rates and increasing completion rates, and making sure that everybody has full access to the most stretching opportunities available to them.

We know that per pupil spending in England has fallen by 8% in the past 10 years, which has led to many schools now having to rely on substantial parental funding—in some cases, it is up to £1,200 per year. How is the Department ensuring that schools in disadvantaged areas are able to continue to deliver for pupils, given that the parents in such areas cannot possibly consider contributing such fees?

The simple truth is that that gap has been narrowing in England. I will take no lessons from SNP Members, whose Government in Scotland are failing to narrow the gap.

As we have heard from Members from all parties, communication, articulacy and oracy are the absolute keys to closing the disadvantage gap. A child with poor vocabulary at five and under is twice as likely to be unemployed at 30. We know that high-quality early years education can make a massive difference for disadvantaged children. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) for mentioning the heads of maintained nurseries who are campaigning outside No. 10 right now. Sadly, the Secretary of State chooses to lock the most disadvantaged youngsters out of the 30 hours of free childcare. Does he not agree that to make a serious attempt at closing the disadvantage gap, he must drop the requirement that both parents have to be in work to qualify for entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare?

There are currently 154,960 disadvantaged two-year-olds benefiting from the 15 hours’ free entitlement programme—a programme that was never available under any Labour Government. As for the increase in eligibility from 15 to 30 hours, that supports working families and helps to sustain employment. I gently remind the hon. Lady that we have record levels of employment in this country and the lowest level of unemployment we have seen since the mid-1970s.

Order. Progress is very slow, so we need to speed up. There are a lot of questions to get through; short questions and short answers would facilitate us in the process.