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Early Years Education: Equality of Attainment

Volume 673: debated on Tuesday 10 March 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of early years education on equality of attainment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles.

I represent one of the poorest communities and constituencies in the country. I take no pleasure in that fact. Sometimes, and especially on the left, it feels like we play poverty Top Trumps and fetishise life in poorer communities. I do not. I grew up in a low-income, lone-parent family and watched my mum work long hours during the day and study at night so that my sister and I could have a better life. Life in poverty is hard, cold and scary. The people in communities such as mine are brilliant, but the circumstances in which many are compelled to live are not.

The one thing that people know about living in poverty is that they are never going back to it, and that experience brought me to this place. As a young person, I wondered why my family seemed to work so hard but had so little help. As I got older and it became clear that my future would be different, I resolved to use my improved life chances and opportunities to stand up for families who are struggling like mine did.

Education is the great leveller. Available universally, it offers everyone the chance to acquire the skills, knowledge and qualifications to change their lives. When it works well, it is transformational. When it does not, it entrenches the inequalities that we seek to tackle. I still see that too often in my community, and the most patent inequality is between rich and poor—those who have, and those who have not. The gap between people from wealthy families and those from poor families has been too large for too long, with significant implications for the adult lives of those who miss out, because qualifications so often determine income, opportunities and social mobility.

We know that education has the greatest impact and is the greatest leveller when it takes place early in the life course, which is the subject of the debate. In early years education, for children until the age of five, it is about trying to address lifelong inequalities before they arise and breaking the cycle of poverty. After that, we are just firefighting; it is still important, but we are playing catch-up. It is important that we take opportunities such as this to critique the Government’s early years policies, because they are supposed to be making a difference right now.

With an ever-changing UK labour market, the consequences for young people not starting on the right path are as dramatic as they have ever been, if not more so. I will borrow slightly from the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) by talking a little about white working-class boys, as we did the week before last, when he and the Minister were both here. That cannot be spoken about too much and is not spoken about enough. In my community, the group that struggles the hardest is white working-class boys.

I have given the figures before in the main Chamber, but they bear repeating. In Nottingham, our primary education has come so far on such a rapid journey, and I am proud that we have broadly reached the national average for key stage 2 outcomes. That is not the best or only measure, but it is a significant one. But that success masks significant inequalities between boys and girls, because 70% of girls reach that expected standard for reading, writing and maths combined, while the same is true for only 59% of boys. In different primaries in my constituency, 76% of girls meet the expected standard but only 35% of boys, or 79% and 40%, or 92% and 50%. Of the 29 primary schools in my constituency for which I have data, boys have worse outcomes in 26 of them, and in 17 schools the attainment gap is over 10%. The differences are greatest in the poorest and least diverse communities.

That is a significant challenge that is replicated across the country. White British children who are eligible for free school meals are consistently the lowest performing group. In 2015, only 595 white British boys who were eligible for free school meals achieved level 4 or better in reading, writing and maths—21 percentage points behind the national average. Furthermore, only one in four white British boys eligible for free school meals will achieve five GCSEs at A* to C, whereas the national average is almost 60%. This is a story in which groups of children—always the poorest, often the boys and particularly white British boys—start behind, and that gap grows.

There are many factors in creating that gap, including stereotyping and bias at home or even within education, stress at home, and parents’ negative views towards education, which can damage young people’s potential and aspirations. I have been a chair of school governors in my community for a decade, and I frequently see the parental attitude to education reflected in the child’s. The parents did not enjoy their time at school and they pass that on to their children in a sort of self-defeat, not daring to live a full life because of the disappointments of the past.

Our two brilliant universities, the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University, provide great outreach programmes—I suspect they include Mansfield—for which they visit schools. I have observed those lessons, and the kids come out bursting with ideas. Although university is not the be-all and end-all, it is not something that happens to many people in my community. In many cases, kids who go home and say, “I’m going to go to university,” will hear the answer, “No, you’re not.” That is extraordinary and we have to overcome it, because those experiences can lead to poor mental health and emotional wellbeing in children and perpetuate a lack of engagement in education. That is cyclical.

Our schools do what they can to bridge the attainment gap. I chair the school governors at Rosslyn Park Primary School, which is the most challenged school in the city and the region by income deprivation affecting children index score. Before even getting a textbook out or writing on the whiteboard, teachers are learning about the social and emotional aspects of learning and pastoral care—never mind high-level safeguarding work with the local authority—and they do incredible things just to get the children ready to learn. That work has its roots in the ages between nought and five, because we find that when children come to school for the first time, too many are still in nappies or unable to form basic words, with 0% at the combined level of expected development, leaving an awful lot for a school to do. Schools are at the heart of the debate, but they cannot wave a magic wand to overcome those obstacles.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning our debate in this Chamber a few weeks ago about white working-class boys and attainment. An issue that seems to cut across later attainment and across different measures—the number of young men who end up in prison, for example—is their ability very early on to communicate effectively and understand what is happening around them, particularly in the classroom. Does he agree that early years communication and language support, particularly through provision in nursery and primary schools, is hugely important to helping kids to engage with school in the first instance and reach the right attainment levels later on?

I absolutely share that view. The hon. Gentleman will know from visiting schools and discussing behaviour with teachers and senior leaders, as all Members do, that they talk about the frustration and anger that build up in children— particularly white British boys—which leads to temporary and permanent exclusions. That all comes from the fundamental starting point of not really being able to engage fully and getting frustrated, as we all would.

I have time enough to explain the context in my community with a little potted history of Nottingham. I am sure that the context applies to Mansfield as it does to my part of the city of Nottingham. Ours is one of the poorest parts of the country, but it was not always that way. Up until four decades ago, we had lots of skilled work, with Boots, Rayleigh, Players, Plessis, the pits and much more, but over the course of a generation, virtually of all of that has gone. The massive impact on confidence and aspiration means that cyclical poverty has flowed from that, but, for the first time in a generation, we have a chance to change it. In my community, we have three exciting opportunities: High Speed 2 at Toton; improvements to access to East Midlands Airport, which is now the biggest pure freight airport in the country; and the repurposing of our power station sites as clean energy zones. Those projects will add tens of thousands of jobs—perhaps as many as 100,000—to our local economy, and represent a generational chance to break the cycle.

The uncomfortable truth though is that, were we to fast-forward to that bright future tomorrow, which I would very much like, we would have to bring in people from outside to fill those jobs, because our young people, in the light of their experiences, are not yet ready for them. When visiting schools and talking about HS2 and the timeline for that to come onstream, for example, we are not talking about theoretical people who will work in those jobs, but about the children that we see in the room. They will be the IT specialists, project managers, engineers, logistics experts, nurses, police officers and much more. They are the very children who we need to gear up, educate and skill up for that very bright future.

In Nottingham, we are proud of our record as an early intervention city. That is what we talk about when we discuss early years education. I would be smote down if I did not refer to my predecessor, Graham Allen, who is a national leader in that work. Programmes have been established in my constituency to help to develop new practices and change public services. When I was part of the local authority five years ago, I was very proud that we were one of the sites that won the national lottery community fund’s A Better Start programme for our project, Small Steps Big Changes. I am really proud of the difference that the project makes to the lives of our children and young people. Our Think Dads! training brings dads into the picture in a way that they had not been in the past, with father-inclusive practices when they go into the home. I encourage colleagues to look at the family mentoring scheme in the Small Steps Big Changes project, which skills up people in the community whom neighbours look to for leadership and help tackling the challenges faced by families. Those people get skills and employment as a result, and are often better messengers than we are for some of the messages that need to go through to provide better starts and education.

We are halfway through A Better Start, and I am keen to hear the Minister’s views on how it has done and where it is going. Has he had a chance to visit one of the sites and, if not, would he visit ours in Nottingham? There would be lots there that he would really enjoy. A Better Start is a 10-year lottery-funded programme—that is the best funding for any project in my experience—but it will stop. We will look at mainstreaming the bits that were particularly effective in Nottingham, but in the context of budget reductions. What will the Government’s answer be after that?

The Labour party is committed to early years action. We are so proud of Sure Start, which is one of our great legacies. That is the principle that we need to talk about and the way that we should approach early years education, by giving each child the best possible start in life, through childcare and early education, as well as health and family support. Sure Start provided for locally owned and driven programmes, which were understood and were sensitive to the needs of the parents and children, provided greater support for those who needed it. A child’s ability to succeed is shaped by their home environment. Sure Start was perfectly placed to improve and shape those environments. The cuts to Sure Start are not theoretical—the numbers are as they are—and we risk a lost generation. Whatever one’s views on public finances and the big or small state, everybody knows investing early produces greater returns. I worry that we have a generation that has not had that investment. Our priority should be for those children to catch up, while we invest in their little brothers and sisters.

The hon. Gentleman is making a great case for providing opportunity for all. The early years national funding formula pays a setting only 100 miles from Cornwall £1.39 an hour more for each child than we receive in Cornwall. Does he agree that, unless we invest in young lives to have the best setting so that pre-schools or nurseries can survive, potentially we are failing this generation?

I absolutely share that view. This is a stitch in time saving nine: those savings are false economies. We could save on our budget balance in the short term but, fundamentally, the cost will be much greater later in the system, whether in criminal justice or elsewhere, such as missed employment opportunities. We can do much better, and plan much better. I am interested to hear from the Minister what the vision for early years is. The challenges are well known, and that is why we have a broad political consensus. What will we do differently to break the cycle in places such as Bulwell, Bilborough, Aspley, Mansfield and Warsop? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, and I am grateful for the time.

It is a pleasure to debate under your chairmanship again, Sir Charles.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on securing this debate and on a powerful opening speech. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for participating and making important contributions.

Continuously improving this country’s education system starts with the early years. High-quality early education can have a huge impact on children’s development, not just when they are in the education system but throughout their life. Our ambition is to provide equality of opportunity for every child, regardless of background or where they live, and to improve access to high-quality early education across the country.

This Government are therefore prioritising investment in free early education support to parents and carers. Disadvantaged two-year olds can access at least 15 hours of early education each week, and since we introduced the programme in September 2013, more than 850,000 children have benefited from it. In addition, in 2017, we introduced the 30 hours’ entitlement for working parents of three and four-year-olds, which benefited about 600,000 children in the first two years. The 30 hours’ entitlement makes childcare more accessible for parents and carers, saving up to £5,000 per child per year and giving them the ability to balance work and family life.

We are continuing that investment. We plan to spend more than £3.6 billion on early education entitlements in the next financial year. In April, all local authorities will see an increase to the hourly funding rates for two-year-olds and an increase in the vast majority of areas for three and four-year-olds.

The figures for children supported by free childcare are hugely welcome, and those for the increase in funding doubly so. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the scenario that I raised with him in a previous debate, in which, with the two-year-old offer in particular, parents earning more than £100,000 or a couple earning up to £200,000 a year may access the 30 hours’ free childcare, whereas a single mum on the minimum wage might not be able to. I understand the balance that has to be struck. We support families who are working—that is important—but should we not support more families, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds, if we want to address that imbalance in earnings?

Those are issues always debated in debates such as this, but what is important is that we introduced the concept of free early years education for disadvantaged two-year-olds. We always want to do more, of course.

In addition, we offer financial support for childcare costs through universal credit and tax-free childcare. The issue, however, is not only about parents and carers of young children being able to work, safe in the knowledge that their children are in good hands. Evidence from longitudinal studies, including the effective pre-school, primary and secondary education project, EPPSE, and the study of early education and development, SEED, suggests that the duration in months and years is more important for child outcomes than the average hours per week. Education and childcare from an early age can make a huge difference.

For example, both EPPSE and SEED found that an earlier start in childcare from the age of two has benefits for the 40% most disadvantaged children. The recent SEED report on age five found that, for the 40% most disadvantaged children, starting in childcare from age two, combined with using the 15 to 20 hours per week, had benefits for those children’s verbal development in year 1 and on their overall achievement in the early years foundation stage profile in reception. The international evidence base is also consistent, finding that the quality of childcare affects child outcomes: higher quality provision improves children’s outcomes in the short and the long term.

The early years workforce plays a key role in the delivery of high-quality early education and childcare. It is testament to them that 96% of childcare settings are now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, which is an increase from the 74% so rated in 2012. The latest early years foundation stage profile results show that the proportion of all children achieving a good level of development is improving year on year, with 71.8% of children having achieved it in 2019, compared with 51.7% in 2013.

That progress is welcome, but too many children still fall behind. I take on board all the points made by the hon. Member for Nottingham North. The gap between children eligible for free school meals and their peers has narrowed overall since 2013, but still too many finish their reception year without the early communication and literacy skills that they need to do well. Early years education, including in the reception year, presents a key opportunity to close the gaps referred to by the hon. Gentleman in his speech.

We have piloted and consulted on an important package of reforms to the early years foundation stage statutory framework which sets the standards for education, development and care for children from birth to five. Revisions to the early learning goals and education programmes will see greater focus on language and vocabulary development, which is key to tackling the word gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Our proposed reforms are intended to reduce workload and to free up teachers to spend more time teaching, interacting with and supporting children—disadvantaged children in particular—to ensure that they are developing the rich vocabulary, skills and behaviours that they need to succeed when they start school. Our consultation on those reforms closed on 31 January, and we plan to publish a response in the spring.Alongside that, we are revising the early years curriculum guidance from birth to reception, to ensure that teachers and practitioners have the right information to support children and to give them rich activities and experiences on a daily basis. We have also invited schools to opt in voluntarily to implement the reforms from this September, a year ahead of the full roll-out planned for September 2021.

Alongside changes to the curriculum, we are committed to supporting the early years workforce to develop the appropriate skills and experience to improve outcomes. That includes an investment of £26 million to set up a network of English hubs, to strengthen the teaching of phonics and early language in schools around the country. We continue to support graduates joining the early years sector through the early years initial teacher training, including with fees, bursaries and employer incentives.

Since the publication of the early years workforce strategy in 2017, the Department has worked closely with the early years sector to deliver our commitments to support employers to attract, retain and develop early years practitioners, including more robust levels 2 and 3 qualifications, and a new early years T-level qualification that will be available this year. There is growing evidence that investing in professional development is key to improving those skills, which is why we are investing £20 million through our early years professional development programme to provide early language, literacy and maths training for the pre-reception workforce in disadvantaged areas.

As I said earlier, what happens in a child’s home is hugely important. What happens before they start school can have a huge influence on later outcomes, and the quality of the home learning environment is a key predictor of a child’s early language ability and future success—that was referred to by all hon. Members participating in this debate. We cannot consider improving early education in isolation. Unfortunately, children from some low-income homes are more likely to arrive at school with below-average language skills, leaving them at an educational disadvantage from the start.

We have therefore launched Hungry Little Minds, a three-year campaign to encourage parents to engage in activities that support their child’s early development and set them up for school and beyond. The campaign, working with partners from across the public, voluntary and private sectors, promotes simple everyday things that every parent can do.

I am sure the Minister will be aware that Sure Start did exactly that. In Barnsley; we have lost 14 Sure Starts in the last decade—that is 73% of provision in my borough, which has had the worst cuts in the country. When will early years funding be back to its pre-2010 levels?

We have already announced a £66 million increase in funding for early years—I referred to that when I made the point that there will be increases in the hourly rates to local authorities up and down the country.

I want to conclude the debate by re-emphasising the importance we attach to the early years sector in improving outcomes, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why we introduced the entitlements to free childcare; it is also why we are reforming the early years foundation stage profile and the guidance on the curriculum. A Better Start, the programme raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, is hugely exciting—in central Government we look to it as an innovative approach, building on the evidence base, and we look forward hugely to the evidence that it produces, which we can learn from right across the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.