My Lords, I welcome the three maiden speakers who will speak in this debate.
Two objectives of the previous Government were to improve the standard of education of our children in schools and to reduce inequality in society. All the evidence suggests that we can address both these problems together if we pay more attention to the first three years in the lives of our most disadvantaged children. By the age of three, the child’s brain is 80 per cent formed. Experiences during that period shape the way that the brain grows and develops.
Most parents in this country are doing a good job raising their children, but some, often through circumstances beyond their control, need more help and support from us than they are getting today. At the moment, a small but significant minority of our children are not getting the sort of early childhood parenting that they need, and then they often go on to fail in school, disrupt other learners and pull down the standard of our school system as a whole. Then, when these children grow up, they have their own children, and they will tend to bring them up in the same way. This diminishes rather than increases their life chances, and so the cycle of disadvantage is handed down from one generation to the next. This is a disaster. It is very serious.
In support of what I am saying, I shall quote from two reports from opposite ends of the political spectrum—a very proper thing to do from the Cross Benches. In the report Building Character, published in November 2009, the left-wing think tank Demos cites two separate American studies that show how a child’s life chances begin to be determined even before he or she is born. The report says:
“Different pre-birth factors, including the ill-health or stress of the mother, may be hardwiring heightened susceptibility into the developing baby even before the child is born. … elevated levels of the stressor chemical cortisol in the womb during late pregnancy have also been shown to predict negative temperament in infants at age two”.
The report goes on to cite a range of studies showing how infants between birth and three years-old are more malleable than they will be at any subsequent stage in their lives. So, it says, parents are the principal architects of a fairer society.
At the other end of the political spectrum, the Conservative think tank the Centre for Social Justice reaches much the same conclusions in its recent Green Paper on the Family, which says:
“Stable, healthy families are at the heart of strong societies. It is within the family environment that an individual’s physical, emotional and psychological development occurs. It is from our family that we learn unconditional love, we understand right from wrong, and we gain empathy, respect and self-regulation. These qualities enable us to engage positively at school, at work and in society in general”.
Many noble Lords will be aware of the classic research by Bowlby and Ainsworth and other researchers, who worked with Romanian orphans. They conclude that secure attachment and committed parenting during a child’s early years are important in enabling the child to feel safe, loved and valued. A young child needs to feel safe because it is in a terrifying new world. He or she needs to be confident that there is at least one adult whom they can turn to and trust for love and sympathy, who will always be there for them. Conversely, research shows that violence, anger or discord in the family during these foundation years are strongly negatively linked to child outcomes. So is family breakdown.
The child needs to feel loved in order to begin to learn the most important social skill of all—to love and to be loved. Through a loving relationship with the mother or other principal carer, a child learns that love is about giving as well as taking and begins to learn those relationship and communication skills, even if they are only smiles and gurgles to start with, that are at the very heart of communication in later life.
Finally, a child needs to feel valued. To feel valued enables the child to begin to build identity and self-esteem. Self-esteem is the parent of hope. Every child needs to believe that they can succeed at something. Confidence is what makes success possible. A child who arrives at school without these skills will find it difficult to fit in, settle down and learn. All too often, this leads to the child rejecting school and switching off, being disruptive, playing truant and feeling excluded. That, in turn, leads to educational failure, lack of ambition and lack of hope. The director of the Oxford centre for research into parenting and children, Professor Ann Buchanan—who, I am happy to say, is with us in the Building this afternoon—put it this way:
“Escape from social exclusion is particularly difficult for children and parents who have been rendered without hope … because of discrimination, poor social conditions, community norms that may encourage low expectations, domestic violence and child abuse”.
Those children need a hand. That is why good parenting is so crucial for the zero to three year-olds, and why how parents tackle the job, the parenting style, is so important.
The Demos report that I quoted earlier says about parenting styles:
“Using a typology that measures four different parenting styles—tough love, laissez-faire, authoritarian and disengaged—we found that ‘tough love’ children are more than twice as likely to display strong character capability in the early years than those with ‘disengaged’ parents”.
Character capabilities include social and emotional skills such as application and safe self-regulation. They include the ability to defer gratification and to concentrate, or stick to something—life skills which we all know that we all need.
So why are some parents failing their children? Nearly all mothers want to love and be loved by their child. Nearly all parents want their child to succeed. The truth is that many parents face very serious problems. Some do not know how to be a good parent because they themselves have never had any experience of good parenting. Others have failed at school. They may not know how to help their children to learn. They may not even be able to read aloud to them. Then there are many parents who suffer from a whole range of disabilities and disadvantages beyond their control: physical or mental ill health, addiction to drugs or alcohol, poor housing, poverty, debt, or a partner who is violent or in prison. They may be struggling to juggle parenting, work and sometimes also a caring responsibility for an older or sick relative. As a society, we need to be much more effective in addressing these problems. It would be incredibly cost effective to do so in the long run, and even in the fairly short run.
Then, of course, 3.5 million children are today living in broken homes. By way of evidence, the Centre for Social Justice report says,
“speaking with thousands of individuals and organisations tackling poverty at the coalface, we have found that family breakdown is often at the root of”—
“Hence a child not growing up in a two-parent family is 75 per cent more likely to fail at school, 70 per cent more likely to be a drug addict, 50 per cent more likely to have an alcohol problem”.
I interpose here that in most cases we must not blame this on the single parent at all.
I turn now to the way forward. The previous Government devoted considerable effort and substantial resources to trying to solve these problems. Frankly, it is extremely disappointing that they were not as successful as many of us hoped. However, we must learn from their successes and failures and move forward. Reports by Frank Field MP and Graham Allen MP were recently presented to government. Both confirmed what I have long suspected: problems created in the first three years of a child’s life cast a long and dark shadow over their future.
Frank Field’s report The Foundation Years: preventing poor adults becoming poor children, published just before Christmas, presents a new strategy to abolish child poverty. This report is particularly important. Frank Field asks,
“how we can prevent poor children from becoming poor adults”,
and concludes that,
“the UK needs to address the issue of child poverty in a fundamentally different way. … We have found overwhelming evidence that children’s life chances are most heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life”.
He concludes that parents are the drivers in determining their children’s life chances. It is not so much who the parents are—what their jobs are or what social class they are—but what they do and how they nurture their children. All the evidence shows that tough love and intellectual stimulation are what matter most.
Frank Field’s report makes several key suggestions. The first is developing a life chances indicator to measure success in making life chances more equal for children at both the national and the local level. The second suggestion is for a new tripartite education system, in which the foundation stage—from conception to the age of five—has the same status as primary and secondary education have today. Thirdly, he suggests age-appropriate teaching of parenting and life skills in all schools throughout the pupil’s school career. The fourth suggestion is for greater emphasis on antenatal and postnatal care and on parenting education at this stage of the life cycle. I urge the Government to take these proposals very seriously.
The report by Graham Allen, which was also published recently, mainly concerns itself with indentifying interventions that the state can make with children at the foundation stage. It finds, significantly, that current services are variable, fragmented and not easily accessed or understood by those who might benefit from them. It is a pretty depressing report. Unfortunately, I do not have time to discuss the Allen report proposals in detail. Many of them are good, but I have one major concern. For families raising nought to three year-olds, it is very important that interventions should not be intrusive. Even when they have problems, most parents want to feel that they are still in control. For nought to three year-olds, consistent, secure and loving attachment to a mother or some other dedicated principal carer must be by far the most important ingredient in a successful parenting programme. Ever-changing carers or foster carers, however well trained, can never replace secure attachment.
It seems that professionals and experts have now come to agree that a child’s experiences in the early years are crucial to success in school and in later life. I hope that the Minister, when he replies, can assure the House that the Government intend to respond very positively to the proposals in the Frank Field report. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is with a sense of considerable privilege that I address your Lordships' House for the first time. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. His efforts on behalf of the underprivileged are well known to us all.
Some noble Lords will know that I have been engaged in education policy for a good part of my life. I hope, therefore, to be able to contribute to your Lordships’ discussions on education. During the previous Conservative Administration I was appointed to lead the movement towards autonomy for state schools. This resulted in grant-maintained schools, from which the current academies programme finds its roots. However, it is about an entirely different aspect of education—special needs in education—that I want to speak today as early parenting skills are hugely important in this area.
In 2006 I was appointed by the then leader of the Opposition to chair a commission and produce a report on the reform of special educational needs. This brought home to me the huge importance of early diagnosis and early help for parents as both of those lead to success in schooling. I pay tribute to Professor John Marks, who helped me with that report, to Mr Brian Lamb, who produced the concomitant Labour report, and to those members of the Liberal Party who laid such emphasis on the early years in their manifesto.
There can be few more devastating experiences for families than finding, perhaps soon after their child is born, that he or she will need special care, possibly lifelong care. The advances in the past decades in medical technology mean that even children with the most complex and serious disabilities can not only survive birth but find much content in their life, provided they get the right attention, the right love, the right sympathy, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and, of course, the right medication and the right schooling to follow. However, as he advised us, many parents do not possess early parenting skills and do not know where to go to get help to acquire them. If they have a disabled child, they will seek a statement of special educational needs but I am afraid that 40 per cent of them are turned down and the number of special educational needs statements is falling year on year. If they are refused, the parents concerned have an even gloomier prospect because they have to go to a special needs tribunal. All those parents who gave me evidence suggested that this was one of the most agonising things that they had encountered. Indeed, a man I spoke to last year told me that this was the most uncomfortable and difficult experience of his life—and he was a QC. How much more daunting is the experience for a young, inexperienced parent, who perhaps has little education and certainly little knowledge of judicial procedures. These processes are complicated. The papers were brought to me at this House a couple of days ago covering one girl’s tribunal. They numbered 500 sheets and I am told that this is pretty average.
Parents tell us that the tribunal system is getting longer, more adversarial and costly—they mention legal bills of about £12,000. The tribunal system was started for the best of all reasons as an arena of last resort, to be used rarely. Now it has become almost the norm. In 2008 it was moved from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to the Ministry of Justice. Appallingly, some of these tribunals now take place in magistrates’ courts. Parents have told me that they find themselves, with their young disabled child, sitting next to people arraigned for criminal activity or awaiting appeals against deportation orders.
Finally, I am delighted that the Government are considering a Green Paper on reform of special educational needs. Among the many reforms that will be required, to which I hope to return at a later date in this House, I very much hope that the Government will consider, first, dejudicialising the tribunal system and, secondly, inserting early on a process of mediation between those parents who require better facilities for their children and the local authorities, which of course are obliged to pay for them. Mediation works extremely well in other walks of life. There is no reason why it should not work well here, provided that the mediators are seen to be independent. Early parenting skills are hugely important, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, told us, and are no more important than in the area of special educational needs. I very much hope that the Government will do the things that I have asked them to consider.
My Lords, it is an unexpected pleasure to be welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, to your Lordships’ House and I congratulate him on his wonderful, confident and thoughtful maiden speech. He said it was his maiden speech, so we must believe him—but I had to check on it.
The noble Lord is a man who says he has no secrets, but he has had one of the most varied careers that I have ever known—including headmaster, publisher, manager, volunteer, and pro-chancellor of Brunel University. We share an interest in cricket, and he is a knight to boot. I know that with all this experience, he will be a great asset to your Lordships’ House and I look forward to getting to know him better.
Parenting is the most important issue we can discuss, so I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for giving us the opportunity to do so. It is a timely debate, given the recent publication of several reports which directly or indirectly refer to the role of parenting in child development. According to Family Lives, most parents and grandparents feel that the task of parenting is more challenging than it was a generation ago. Yet we know that without security, love, support and positive stimulation, children’s brains will not develop as they should, and their physical, emotional and intellectual development will be impaired. Children need early opportunities to play, explore their environment, look at books, be talked to and sung to. They also need structure, boundaries and early bonding. There are important values to be transmitted to children. They need to make sense of the world and to develop self-esteem. They need unconditional commitment and nurturing, as the Frank Field report points out.
Success in school is a spin-off from good early parenting, which encourages aspiration. However, I am highly suspicious of parenting which might be designed to prepare for success. I do not for a minute think that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is simply focusing on academic success. One of the saddest stories I remember from when I was teaching was that of a father saying to me over and over again, “My daughter will be a doctor”. The girl was a talented artist, with no inclination towards science and no aptitude for it. She would not have achieved the necessary grades, however much cramming took place. Noble Lords may have read about the “dragon mother” who forced her daughters to be proficient in playing the piano. I have not read the book but I believe that one girl ended up hating the mother and the other chewing the piano. I said “chewing” not “tuning”. We all may have come across parents who attempt to live out their own ambitions through their children. The father I just mentioned may well have wanted to be a doctor.
Graham Allen’s report on early intervention speaks of enabling children to become excellent parents and of the expense of not fostering social and emotional capability. Children, even very young children, if they are lucky, have a network to support their development: grandparents—how important they can be—other relatives, pre-school education and adults with whom children come into contact. Parents need support, too. Midwives, professionals, Sure Start and family intervention programmes can all help. They may need review, but I hope that they survive the proposed cuts in spending. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, we must spend early to save later. I hope that the Government understand that. We know that young people who end up in the criminal justice system have often suffered abuse and neglect and that this is likely to be passed on to their own children.
The UK features low down on UNICEF’s report card 9—I should declare an interest as a trustee of UNICEF. That is due not just to poverty. It is important that children do well at school and go on to succeed, and many children educate themselves out of poverty. However, they should succeed in a broad sense so that they can develop friendships, learn positive values and be happy. Yes, early intervention is important, but that must be carried through into constant intervention—not interference, but thoughtful and unselfish commitment to helping children and young people develop their full potential, whatever that potential might be.
“Parent” is a broad term. More than 200,000 grandparents bring up their grandchildren. Care placements with families are more successful than those outside the family. I find that very interesting and a testimony to the importance of security. As we have argued in this House previously, kinship carers need financial and other support.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has raised a very complex issue, but one that we must grasp for the sake of ourselves, our children and grandchildren, and of future generations.
My Lords, I am sure that we are all convinced by the excellent opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, by various pieces of research and by recent, thoughtful reports by Graham Allen MP and Frank Field MP that a child’s life chances are determined in the very early months and years of his life. The Feinstein research published in 2003 found that early child development is a strong predictor of later educational attainment and that social class overlays this. In other words, it does not matter too much if development at 22 months lags behind other children if your parents happen to be in demographic groups A or B, whereas if your brain development is high at a young age but you come from a deprived background, you may not achieve your early promise. This is complex enough, but we then have to overlay it with the factors that affect brain development: maternal and childhood stress, poor attachment, lack of proper development of social and emotional skill because of isolation or violence, lack of stimulation et cetera. A highly complex web of factors affects how well a child does at school.
Have we now got the full picture? Well, no, because we now have to add in parenting engagement and style. There is no reason why a poor family cannot bring up children to fulfil their potential—though it is hard—as long as the parents are fully engaged with their child’s education, put a lot of effort into it and are thoughtful about their parenting. The trouble is that this is easier said than done if you are desperately stressed about money, live in a cold, damp home with nowhere for the child to do his homework, cannot afford the enriching experiences that help a child to understand the world and even find it difficult to nourish your child well. Perhaps, too, you had a bad experience at school. You may not even be literate, so cannot read the helpful parenting materials that are widely available, including on the internet.
I think that I am trying to paint a picture where three solutions emerge from the facts. The first is that we need to raise the income of the poorest families. Secondly, we need to provide parents with support and information about how to help their child not just academically but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, mentally and emotionally, as well as in their physical health, their ability to form relationships, their self-confidence and, most importantly, their aspiration. Thirdly, we need accessible, proven early interventions that will make up for shortcomings in other areas. These three solutions are recommended in various ways by the two reports that I mentioned.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children was fortunate earlier this week to hear from and question Frank Field. One thing that he said, which stuck in my mind, was that money on its own is not enough. He cited the three year-old child of a very highly paid banker in the company’s nursery. The person in charge of the nursery asked to see the mother and said that she could not get the child to speak at all. The mother said: “I’m glad you noticed that. I have been waiting for him to speak to me”. This and other evidence made Mr Field conclude that, while we need to eradicate child poverty, other interventions are also needed in order to allow all children to flourish. He also pointed out that giving more money to some families would not help the children at all and concluded that we need to provide family support and early interventions for the sake of the children.
Early years education needs to be of high quality. If it is not, it can do more harm than good. This has long been known from the EPPE study. Less widely quoted is something else that came out of that study, which considered not just the effect of early years settings of varying quality but the importance of the child’s home environment. Kathy Sylva et al concluded:
“For all children, the quality of the home learning environment is more important for intellectual and social development than parental occupation, education or income”.
While we are offering 15 hours of free early years education to three and four year-olds, and now to the most deprived two year-olds, which I welcome, are we ensuring that it is done always in a way that is not intrusive, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, and that involves, engages and empowers the parents? If it is not, it will just scratch at the surface of the task of helping the child to develop. Stable, loving and supportive family backgrounds, with positive parenting, are the best for children, but we do not learn to create them by osmosis.
What does this mean for public policy? Sure Start centres are now scattered all over the country and we will be asking organisations to tender for them. Part of the deal must be that they should prove how they are reaching and working with parents. The outcomes for children depend on it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on securing this important and timely debate and I look forward to hearing the right reverend Prelate who follows me. I declare an interest as a governor of Coram. Perhaps I ought also to say that I was a guest of Barnardo’s last night at an extremely good dinner hosted by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen. I will speak about both those admirable organisations.
I will refer in particular to a very seriously disadvantaged group of children: those taken into care either at birth or as very young babies. There is widespread recognition of the good practice in social work of arranging the permanent placement of babies within six months. However, the problem is that by and large this does not happen. First, the baby is taken away and placed with short-term foster parents. The average number of moves before a baby is finally placed is four. There is a wonderful arrangement of concurrent planning, whereby the child is placed with foster parents who are also assessed as potential adopters. The baby may go home to their parents or may be adopted. This has been pioneered by Coram, supported by Barnardo’s, with several local authorities over the past 10 years. Sadly, there are not sufficient numbers of referrals from local authorities for it to be viable for Coram, which is having seriously to consider stopping doing it. This is due in part to the 2008 legislation on children, which has placed far greater emphasis on the rights of parents, and in part to the increasing length of time that one has to wait for a full hearing in the care court. I am told that the average is now 70 weeks; when I was president of the Family Division, it was between 40 and 50 weeks, so I am sad to hear that.
Quick, permanent placements are difficult to achieve, since there is a real tension between the need to place the child quickly, for all the reasons emerging in this debate, and the rights of parents, who can be not only adversarial but very contentious. Other factors include delays in the court process, to which I have referred, the different responsibilities of agencies that have to work together—social workers, CAFCASS and medical experts—and the need for sufficient evidence to move a child permanently. Local authorities are not referring children to Coram and into a potentially final placement until the care plan is finalised. That is perfectly understandable, but it is another delaying factor. Another problem is the contact between the mother and a baby in short-term foster care, which is often extensive and sometimes lasts for several hours every day. That can only be very bewildering for the child, although necessary, and it undoubtedly raises the question of whom the baby forms an attachment with.
We also have to bear in mind that there are inflammatory articles from journalists, such as Camilla Cavendish in the Times, if, in their opinion, children are taken away too quickly. However, I remember one case, when I was a judge, in which the mother of a baby had already had six or seven children taken into care. One might think that her track record gave little cause for hope. I am told that at least one judge has recently dealt with a mother whose previous 14 children had been taken into care.
I am encouraged by the obviously genuine desire of this Government to try to break the deadlock and to get more children adopted. If these babies are to have any real chance of success at school, and consequently in life, it is crucial that they are settled as early as possible. Coram and Barnardo’s are hoping to work together on promoting more successful permanency planning for adoption. There is a Harrow model that, working with Coram, has managed to place some children within six months. That is admirable and, I believe, quite the best that could be done, but it needs a lot of work with parents, local authorities and other agencies.
Other good projects are run by Coram, one of which involves referring children under the age of four with problems. Work is done with these children, including music therapy. Coram does excellent work in helping people through its young parents scheme. That is exactly what should be going on with parents who do not know how to look after their children. The example that we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, of the mother who was waiting for her child to talk is exactly the sort of work that is being done by Coram, and long may it continue. These are all important efforts in helping young children to have a reasonable future. This work must be supported and I hope that the Government will give it proper attention.
My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords and to our excellent support staff for all the help and practical assistance that I have received since I was introduced to the House shortly before Christmas. I have had to be rescued once or twice as I have wondered the corridors, but at least I am feeling more secure now geographically.
I pay tribute to the former Bishop of Salisbury, who has now taken to the beauties and diets of Weardale in retirement. I know that he made a tremendous contribution to this House, and it is his retirement that has caused the Writ of Summons to come to me. Bishop Stancliffe made a notable contribution through his erudition and confident performance, as well as his passion and clarity of mind. However, I have the privilege of serving the diocese of Oxford, where my predecessor, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, made such a striking impact for 19 years. He led, as I now do, one of the largest dioceses in the Church of England, with 813 churches, 620 parishes and 650 clergy. In the 1830s, Bishop Richard Bagot wrote, rather miserably, that he,
“took this diocese solely because of its smallness, quietness and the little trouble it need give one”.
That is not how I would describe the diocese of Oxford today. It is nevertheless an area of huge energy and fascination, including as it does places as diverse as Milton Keynes, Reading, High Wycombe, Windsor, Slough, Chipping Norton and the well known constituency of Witney. It contains major Armed Forces establishments. Noble Lords will know of course of Sandhurst, Brize Norton and the Defence Academy at Shrivenham. We have our own silicon valley going down the M4 and a huge educational industry, including no fewer than seven universities. Scientific research is carried out not only there but at establishments such as Harwell, the Diamond synchrotron, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and all sorts of other places. All this is within some of the loveliest home counties in rural England, which of course has its own challenges. It is also within the multicultural realities of places such as Slough, High Wycombe, Cowley and Reading—all of it small, quiet and of little trouble, of course.
I mentioned the importance of education in the diocese. We have 280 church schools and a very strong commitment to their inclusive and distinctive character. I have been given responsibility, which I have taken on only this week, of chairing the Church of England’s board of education. It has 4,800 schools nationwide, so I have a very particular interest in today’s debate, so helpfully introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I am very engaged with that.
In the midst of much vigorous educational planning by the Government, the debates that we are having today go to the root of the issue of how children flourish. Much has been and will be said about how much money can be saved by early intervention. Although that is true, good and right, surely at a much more fundamental level, we simply want childhood to be joyful and exciting. I heard earlier this week of an adult who has no happy memories of childhood. How tragic is that? I now have four very small grandchildren and I want nothing more for them than that they have an absolutely fun-filled, delightful childhood.
The reports of Frank Field and Graham Allen are excellent pieces of work and I am very grateful for them. I would, however, just add that I am not sure that they sufficiently emphasise the vital importance of a good quality adult relationship surrounding the child. Certainly it is there, but I want to emphasise it because the family structure needs supporting as well as the child. The Church of England has always emphasised that children flourish best in the context of stable, loving, couple-relationships. One of society’s tasks is to support those relationships as strongly as possible—in particular, that fantastic responsibility and privilege of guiding a small life into the wider world. There is just as great a responsibility, of course, to support single parents who may have an even harder struggle, but evidence suggests time and again, that stable, loving, couple-relationships help children to thrive best of all. Relationship support pays off a hundredfold.
My second main point concerns the huge pool of volunteers who, with a little funding, can make all the difference to a child’s life chances. Oxford diocese has an excellent organisation called PACT—parents and children together—which is celebrating 100 years of its existence this year. Among its other functions, which include fostering and adoption work, and extended schools, special work is done with children’s centres. It runs six on behalf of local authorities, one of which started 10 years ago in the aforementioned constituency of Witney. There, a curate, a health visitor and a mental-health nurse got together and got the churches together to produce a multifunctioning, multiagency, multiservice provision in a children’s centre. It has now developed with all kinds of things, such as drop-ins, teenage pregnancy counselling, parenting courses, father support, and so on. That is just one example of what energetic volunteering can do all over the country. At the last count, the Church of England had 67,000 volunteers working with under-sixes in non-church contexts—not in Sunday schools, and so on. Tens of thousands of volunteers throughout all our communities around the country do similar things. There are volunteers to train, alliances to form, partnerships to develop, all of which are doubtless grist to the mill of the big society, but they all need continuity, not the start-stop of constant new initiatives when start-up funding quickly peters out. The work of Sure Start projects, for instance, is beginning to bear real fruit and needs continuity. Support for stable, loving, couple-relationships, support for volunteers and a commitment to continuity are three elements I commend to the House as we debate the flourishing of our most precious asset—the lives of our young children.
My Lords, it is a genuine pleasure to follow the thoughtful and reflective maiden speech of the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. I serve with Bishop John on the council of St John’s College, Durham University, of which he is president, so I am particularly pleased to be able to introduce him to the House. Bishop John started his ministry as a curate in St Martin’s in the Bullring in Birmingham. He has also served in Bath and Wells, in Taunton, and for five years as Archdeacon of Canterbury. I understand that being an archdeacon is rather like being a Whip. It is a nice mix of the pastor and the guidance, so that may stand him in very good stead in this House.
I live in Durham and the first I ever heard of Bishop John was when I had just arrived and was crossing one of its many bridges—its highest one which has an enormous flight of stairs down to the river. I asked the person who was with me whether anyone had ever walked down them and she said, “The Bishop of Jarrow ran up and down them 20 times a day preparing to climb a mountain in the Himalayas”. I encourage noble Lords that if you want to speak to him about something in the corridor move quickly as you may find that he is out of your reach in no time. Bishop John, for anyone who knows him, has a lot of learning which he wears very lightly. He has wisdom, is articulate and everyone I spoke to talked of his good humour and bad jokes. Somebody offered me a photograph—I think a pantomime was mentioned—but I decided to leave it to them. They may be prepared to give it up in return for a decent dinner in the Peers’ Dining Room some time. I will pass on the name later.
As he said, he now chairs the board of education for the Church of England and will speak on education from the Bishops’ Benches, so I know that we will hear a lot more of him and I look forward very much to that. His skills, knowledge and talent will enrich the House, and he is most welcome.
Turning to today’s subject, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing the debate, and I pay tribute to his long-standing commitment to children and families. I shall not rehearse the evidence, as others have done, about the importance of early childhood in brain development and in ensuring that children can attain their full potential, as well as educational attainment in later years. I am concerned about the degree to which we pay careful attention to the research because, as we heard earlier, it is complex. A large number of factors are at play. Social class interplays with parenting style, income, parental status and family structure, and it is hard to separate out causality from correlation, so we need to be careful in using evidence. However, it has been demonstrated that parenting is in itself a significant causal factor, even when one controls everything else. I am pleased that the debate has begun to separate out the idea that this is not about parents’ involvement in education, important though that is, but it is about parenting in the home and parenting itself, and how much difference that can make to children in later years.
I want to draw attention to two things. First, I shall pick up where the right reverend Prelate left off about the importance of couple-relationships. I have worked for some years with single parents, but I also know that most of them did not start out as single parents and never intended to be. Most children were born with both parents either married or resident at the same address, and then life had a way of intervening. One thing that tends to intervene is the arrival of children. There is a lot of established evidence that the arrival of children can place enormous pressure on the relationship between the parents, and conflict within the home can in turn have a significant effect on the child. A wonderful charity, One Plus One, uses a lot of research evidence to develop programmes to support families. Penny Mansfield, who runs it, said:
“This is where there’s a paradox. While a strong relationship between their mum and dad is good for babies, it seems that their arrival can disrupt or even weaken the relationship that should cradle their early life”.
So, support for couples is just as important as supporting children directly. I should be grateful if the Minister will say what steps the Government will be taking to support this important area of work.
Secondly, I welcome the growing acceptance that parenting skills can be learnt. So often, one talks to parents who assume that they should be able to do this naturally but when they get there, they struggle and are embarrassed to admit it and ask for help. It is as though asking for help is acknowledgement of failure as a parent, whereas if you were good you would somehow know how to do it. It is no accident that for a long time one charity had a strap line saying, “Because children come without instructions”. How best can the Government support people in getting that information across? One Plus One developed a brilliantly simple online tool called Baby Clues that parents can use to help them understand better how babies communicate and how they communicate with each other. Babies cannot talk, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, pointed out, but they can communicate. Being able to read the cues that babies offer can be crucial. If a father picks up his baby daughter and she pulls or turns away from him, he may interpret that as her not wanting him to hold her. In fact, she may be signalling that she is overstimulated. Knowing that one piece of information can make a difference to how he interprets the cues coming from the baby and how he in turn feels and reciprocates.
The online nature of that service is sometimes very important. One Plus One provided that along with the Couple Connection. They found that almost half a million parents used it. One quarter of them were men, but half of them said that they would not have used a face-to-face service.
Sometimes the state is not best placed to do that. I strongly urge the Government to think about how they can support the voluntary sector—organisations such as Home Start, One Plus One, Family Lives and a range of other voluntary organisations, many of which are now struggling considerably with their finances. How will the Government support voluntary organisations in supporting parents to do the things that they can do best?
My Lords, I start my maiden speech by thanking your Lordships for the warmest of welcomes since my arrival three weeks ago. This is without doubt one of the friendliest places that I have ever joined, but arranging sleepovers is taking the friendly thing a bit too far.
I also take this opportunity publicly to thank my close friends, my noble friends Lord Coe and Lord Hill of Oareford, the Minister, whose support made my introduction to this House all the more special. Talking of special leads me naturally to remark on the impressive professionalism of all staff working in this House—and I really mean all staff. Not only do I thank them for their support and guidance, I wish to record my great respect for them and for what they do.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on securing this debate. Before I make my contribution, I will say a little about my background and to explain why I have chosen this debate to make my maiden speech. There is much academic discussion—and rightly so —about what is termed social mobility, but I am here today because I am fortunate enough to have benefited from it. I was born and brought up in Beeston, a small town just outside Nottingham, from where I am now proud to take my title. I joined the Civil Service in 1986 and, during my time, worked in the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, the British Embassy in Washington and the Downing Street press office. I had a brief spell in the private sector before returning to politics to run William Hague's office when he was leader of the Opposition. Until the summer of last year, I enjoyed nine busy years at the BBC, and I am now an independent communications consultant. As this is a debate about children, I must declare that the NSPCC is a client.
That is me, but I have omitted two things which are relevant to our discussion today. First, I did not attend university, probably because my comprehensive education was unremarkable. Secondly, the reason that I have none the less achieved considerable success professionally is, I believe, the parenting that I received from my mother and father, a factory worker and a painter and decorator, who encouraged us to be independent, confident and, above else, to seize opportunities that would allow us to succeed.
I share that with your Lordships because, like all new Members of this House, I am frequently asked what is my area of expertise. I am not an expert, but I want to focus my work in this House on how we can encourage ambition and create opportunities for people to succeed, especially those who come from backgrounds similar to mine. To use the policy shorthand, my area of interest is social mobility.
My recent reading has therefore included the report, which has already been referred to, by the right honourable Member for Birkenhead about what he calls the foundation years. Because of my experience, I should not have been surprised, but I was none the less heartened to read in the report not only that parents and families are the most important factor in determining a child's life chances but that their wealth and academic ability are not more important than their aspirations for their children, if those aspirations are maintained. That is the rub. The report shows that parents, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, start with high aspirations but end up with low expectations of what their children will achieve. Parents from backgrounds similar to mine are not aspiring for their children as they get older because they cannot see enough opportunities and because they do not know how their children can achieve success. In my view, addressing that disparity is our biggest challenge and should be one of our priorities. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has already made it so.
I could go on, but, in summary, I believe that we need to champion ambition everywhere and create a range of routes to success that are straightforward, even though they require commitment and hard work. We must not allow our ambition for more working-class children to attend Oxbridge to distract us from helping all young people to be ambitious in whatever they decide to do. To that end, I very much welcome the new generation of university technical colleges and the studio schools which are starting to emerge.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in today's debate, and I look forward to future occasions, when I hope to contribute further.
My Lords, I am sure that you would all agree that we have just been treated to a real class act, a great speech. As she reminded us, the noble Baroness was for 10 years a civil servant, then she served for nine years at the BBC. In a sense, therefore, she has been both gamekeeper and poacher—the latter occupation, I suspect, finding particular favour with many of your Lordships. She has a reputation for being a straight talker, telling it as it is without fear or favour. We welcome that in this House and look forward to many more such worthwhile contributions from her to our debates.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has already received proper tribute for bringing this debate to our attention. He has made the welfare of children and family very much his own subject, on which his many years of study and practical engagement have made him a considerable expert. Some years ago, I was the proprietor of a private school for children aged three to 11. That experience gave me an insight, as an observer, into some fundamental truths about the relationship between parent and child.
Being a good parent is not easy. It is true that, in some cultures, it is almost instinctive. To some extent, we have lost that here. That is why it must be helpful that the practice of parenting is taught. There is a clear need for sufficient welltrained health visitors and for the provision of children's centres and the like, to which young parents can turn for advice and guidance. What parents should do is not rocket science, but it is hard work.
Were I now to be speaking directly to a new young parent, I would have the temerity to put forward three prime points. I hope that noble Lords will not find my comments too simplistic. I take courage from the fact that most, if not all, of my points have already been mentioned by other noble Lords. What I am about to say is, to my mind, fundamental to good parenting and to the preparation of a child for subsequent success.
My first point is communication. It is essential that parents talk to their children from tiny babyhood onwards. One of the saddest sights in our modern society is the pushchair with the child facing away from the parent who is pushing it. Both parent and child lose out as a result. There is no communication between them; there is not even eye contact, and eye contact is very important for a small child.
Secondly, it is important, as early as possible, to establish a routine, to do so from day one. The parent should set the parameters and be consistent. That gives the child a valuable sense of security. Thirdly, and above all, as has been said—most notably by the right reverend Prelate in his excellent maiden speech—a child needs to be loved and to feel valued. A lack of love in a child's early life will leave a scar for the rest of its life.
So, communication, order, commitment and love are the essential ingredients of good parenting, the employment of which will help to prepare the child as it confronts the challenges and opportunities that will come its way.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Northbourne on obtaining this important debate and I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Eden, and others who have paid tribute to the tremendous work that he has done and continues to do in the cause of parenting. I absolutely agree with him on his two main points: first, inviting the Government to consider the addition of foundation years education to the current educational structure; and, secondly, concentrating on teaching life and parenting skills in schools and thereafter to potential parents.
I have to admit that my anger at and my interest in the current situation was stimulated in a young offender institution where I was introduced to a 17 year-old boy whose history was that he had been excluded from playgroup at the age of four and was never allowed to attend primary or secondary school. That seemed to me to be utterly idiotic. All that was again stimulated when I read the report by Graham Allen MP, which has already been mentioned. It showed the bleak truth that decades of expensive late intervention have failed. It is self-evident that costs are paid back by early intervention.
The best place that I know to examine what the failure of early intervention and parenting means is the statistics on those wretched children who are currently in custody. I should like to quote some of those statistics because I hope that they will resonate with those who have responsibility for doing something about the current situation. Of those children in custody, 71 per cent were involved with or in the care of the social services before entering custody; 75 per cent had lived with someone other than a parent at some time, compared with 1.5 per cent in the general population; 76 per cent had an absent father; 33 per cent had an absent mother; 39 per cent were on the child protection register or experienced neglect or abuse; 40 per cent were previously homeless; 40 per cent of girls and 25 per cent of boys reported suffering violence at home; 33 per cent of girls and 5 per cent of boys were sexually abused; 1,148 of the 2,010 children in custody in September 2010 were assessed as vulnerable; and 30 per cent of the young men in prison and 49 per cent of the young women received no visits.
In addition, the education of these children is terrible. Of these children, 46 per cent are rated as underachieving; 38 per cent are below level 1 in numeracy; 90 per cent of young men and 75 per cent of young women have been excluded from school; 40 per cent of boys and 53 per cent of girls said that they last attended school before they were aged 14; and 81 per cent have a variety of mental health problems. To take this one stage further, 41 per cent of adult prisoners report having observed violence in the home as a child. The cost goes on and on.
What can we do about it? Of course, we all know about early intervention, but I should like to make one practical suggestion, which I have made many times in this House already. It picks up on the word “communication”, which was used by the noble Lord, Lord Eden. The inability to communicate is the scourge of the 21st century. It starts with parents not talking to their children and then it continues. I discovered, when I found someone wise enough to put a speech and language therapist to assess young people in a young offender institution, that they had done so because they knew that, until and unless you enable a child to communicate with you, you do not know what to do with and for them.
Very sensibly, Northern Ireland has picked this up. Every child in Northern Ireland is assessed by a speech and language therapist at the age of two. I believe that that should be picked up and replicated here. I do not think that this can be done early enough. The figures that we produced in prisons from the age of 15 onwards showed that, if people had been assessed before they started primary school, they would have had a chance to engage with the teacher; until and unless a child can engage with a teacher, they cannot even begin down the education pathway. If I have one plea for the Minister, it is that, in order to enable all the things that people have talked about in this House to happen, this vital ability to enable children to engage is picked up and run with now.
My Lords, in my maiden speech last October, I mentioned that my mission in life is to put the well-being of children at the heart of society’s consciousness, so I should like to thank the noble Lord for securing this debate, as it focuses on children’s well-being. I also take this opportunity to congratulate all the new Members on their excellent maiden speeches, which highlighted their vision for the well-being of children.
Recent research by the University of York—the Child Well-being Index—showed that, of 29 European countries, the UK was ranked 24th. What a sad indictment that is of our country. I believe that we must strive harder than ever to unlock and unleash the creative potential in the minds of our children and teach them to use it to heal our wounded world. We must prepare our children to think outside the box—differently and creatively—to develop an analytic mind and the ability to express themselves without inhibition.
Childhood lasts a lifetime and children’s future achievements are often decided at birth, as well as through how they are brought up and where they are educated, plus the unconditional love and support that they receive not just from their family but from society. They are our responsibility. We need to excite and feed their imagination in order for them to grow into well rounded human beings. Education is their passport to life. I believe that the best way for young children to learn is through fun and play during those early foundation years, thus stimulating their creative thinking. That includes learning through positive visual and audio stimulation.
For many years I have campaigned for high-quality pre-school children’s television and radio programmes, which at their best can serve as a powerful tool to help parents from all backgrounds to learn how to develop educational and stimulating techniques to use when interacting with their children. It also allows them to watch and listen with their young children, who can use the content as a platform from which they can begin to explore the world and all its wonders.
I do not refer to programmes that encourage passive viewing and are used as surrogate parents or babysitters. Programmes like these should be banned, especially if the television sets are in children’s bedrooms. In fact, I would ban all television and computers in their bedrooms. I am referring to quality not quantity—wholesome, educational, entertaining programmes that open a window on the world and take young minds on an adventure to explore not just their environment but other cultures, too. Yet only 1 per cent of new television programmes are made in the UK and the production of such vital programmes remains under threat. That is something about which we should all be concerned, as children are exposed more and more to programmes that subtract from rather than add to their overall well-being.
I spent many of my early years in the Caribbean with no television, so the art of play was second nature to my parents. Singing songs, reciting poems, listening to stories, dressing up and playing characters from books was a bedtime ritual, which taught us how to communicate to the world. Today, unfortunately, we are living in a different world. Increased working hours, the breakdown of the extended family network and stretched personal financial situations mean that many parents do not have as much time to spend with their children as they would like.
However, high-quality television and radio can be an ally, allowing parents to let their children watch and listen safe in the knowledge that they are benefiting from the content. “Play School”, a programme which I will always be associated with and which I adored being part of, ended two decades ago. It was loved by millions of children and is still remembered fondly. I believe that it was because the producer put children’s well-being at the heart of the programme. It was a sort of mini “South Bank Show” with storytelling, dance, art, songs, mime, music and, of course, the windows that provided a portal to the wider world through which children could expand their knowledge.
Appropriate children’s television is beneficial to childhood development. It can improve attention, expressive language, comprehension, articulation and general knowledge, as well as social interaction and life skills. I urge the Government and broadcasters to wake up to the crisis in the production of quality public service broadcasting for children. I also ask the Government to find creative ways in which to secure funding to maintain the tradition of well made British pre-school programmes that contain all the necessary and essential elements required for our children’s well-being. Children may not inherit all our talents, but they certainly will absorb all our influences, so let us teach them well in order for them to lead the way in the future and to have the confidence, morality and integrity to do so.
My Lords, I rise to make my first contribution in your Lordships’ House and, in doing so, seek the indulgence of noble Lords for a speech that I hope will meet with the normal conventions of being both succinct and uncontroversial. I am very grateful to many noble Lords from across the Chamber and, indeed, to the officers of the House, who have extended the warmest of welcomes to me and, on the day of my introduction, to my family. The warmth of this welcome was accompanied by some kind words about my relatively youthful appearance. I am reminded of the words of a 19th-century philosopher:
“The first forty years of life give us the text; the next thirty supply the commentary on it”.
What lies beyond that, he does not say, but looking around this Chamber provides me with the hope that perhaps the best is yet to come.
Some noble Lords may recall the day of my introduction, not so much by the fact that it was my introduction, although for those who remember it for that reason alone I am truly flattered, but by the fact that my first day in this Chamber fast became my first night in the House and indeed my second day here as well. It is said that a week is long time in politics; my first week in your Lordships’ House qualified this in literal terms.
Today’s debate is about the importance of good parenting in preparing a child for success in school and success in life. As one of the new Members of your Lordships’ House, I found the empathy and assistance extended to me by many noble Lords a type of sound parenting in its own unique way. Whether this leads to success shall be assessed over time. I also extend my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in bringing this subject forward for debate. The noble Lord is someone who has spoken extensively on this subject and is widely recognised for his contributions in the area.
Early learning and the role of parents are key. This is particularly true in infancy, where the creativity of a young mind is like a sponge. From cradle to grave, a journey of learning is something to which I subscribe, but those formative years are key in aiding communication and developing the confidence of a young child. Through my own experience as a youth worker for a youth association for many years, I saw at first hand how children benefited enormously from parents who not only provided the bedrock of security and support but also spent a great deal of time developing a strong relationship with their children. Parents are the earliest role model a child associates with and, if the child is fortunate, as I was, their parents may count among the most powerful and inspiring figures in their life. Indeed, I saw in my time as a councillor and as a governor of a primary school in Wimbledon the importance of integrating parents into the child’s learning, not just at school but during the preamble to school. This had the benefit of allowing the child to be eased into a new environment and for parents to understand the nature of a child’s development.
Another project that I had the pleasure of experiencing at first hand was one in the borough of Tower Hamlets in London. This was based in essence on a mothers and daughters project and it appealed to the Bangladeshi and Somali communities. The initiative is supported through mosaic and is entitled “Seeing is Believing”. Mothers are encouraged to participate through structured classes with their daughters during the reception year. Indeed, seeing was believing, as I saw the benefits of breaking down barriers of language and culture. This assisted not just the children but also the mothers in improving their English-language skills, which enabled and empowered them to become part of their children’s learning in those early development years.
Of course, early learning is not limited to educational attainment alone. This point is well made in the independent review by Graham Allen, Early Intervention: The Next Steps. As I stand before noble Lords today, I reflect on that emotional bedrock and the social importance of developing social and emotional skills. I do so as a beneficiary of parents who, despite the challenges that they faced, spent a great deal of time and took a deep interest in developing my skills during those early years. They are two individuals whose encouragement, support and affection were unlimited and unconditional.
In closing, perhaps I may say what a privilege it is to have had the opportunity to participate in this debate, which focuses on the very foundations of how lives are built, as I begin a new chapter in my own. In this regard, I express my deep gratitude and thanks to my two supporting Peers, my noble friend Lord Howard of Lympne, for his kindness and mentoring, and my good and noble friend Lady Warsi, for her advice, good humour and friendship. I should say how honoured and humbled I am to be in such distinguished company. Entering this House was a time of reflection, in that I have joined the ranks of a quite unique Chamber, one of great history and heritage, renowned for its role in scrutiny and review. It is a place of insight and intellect, brimming with wit and wisdom, as I have seen during the day and, indeed, through the night. I assure noble Lords that, in my humble contributions, I shall always endeavour to protect and respect the best traditions and conventions of this most revered and respected of institutions.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure to be able to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, and to congratulate him on his maiden speech. I want to mention that we share not just Wimbledon in our title but a great love for Wimbledon and Merton, where he is very well known. The noble Lord has already had a stellar career in the financial sector and is an expert in marketing, but we have also heard about his contributions to the voluntary sector. He has also made a huge contribution to local government. I know too that the noble Lord has a lot of international connections and I look forward to getting to know him and seeing something of his youthful energy applied to the work of this House in the future.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Northbourne for introducing this debate. The topic is close to my heart as I originally trained as a child psychiatrist. My daughter is also a consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist working in the field of perinatal mental health and infant development. I am going to focus on the role of specialist mental health services in enabling vulnerable parents to be successful in preparing their children for school.
Graham Allen’s report brings something to our attention that I am particularly pleased about. On page 40 he mentions the impact that unresolved trauma in youth can have on later parenting. He also draws attention to the importance of early intervention in leading to permanent improvements in a child’s health and developmental outcomes, but he stresses that this must happen in the first months and years of life, and even during pregnancy.
Research has increased our understanding of the importance of early experience for later child health and development. The evidence is strong. The emotional and physical environment and relationships during pregnancy and infancy are crucially important in enabling a child to be successful in school and in later life. This applies equally to children with learning disabilities, whose parents must also come to terms with their disability.
The evidence tells us that the first relationships in life are central to healthy development. Professor Schore, from UCLA, says that,
“the child’s first relationship, the one with the mother, acts as a template, as it permanently molds the individual’s capacities to enter all later emotional relationships”.
This profound statement has been understood within the psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic traditions for decades, but now this has been recognised on a neurobiological level. He explains that the architecture of the growing baby’s brain will reflect the quality of the relationships that it has adapted to. The circuits formed during these early years, when the brain is most plastic, may last a lifetime. A baby needs a mother who can help him by responding sensitively to his distress, so the baby feels understood and can begin to manage his own physical and emotional experiences, both now and in later life. This is the foundation of communication, and when communication is absent the health of this emotional attachment needs attention.
Margot Waddell’s book Inside Lives: Psychoanalysis and the Growth of the Personality gives some excellent examples—which I do not have time to share with your Lordships now—which show well how a parent helps a small child to develop a capacity for learning by helping to manage their emotional experiences. Waddell explains:
“Something happened … which enabled the child to feel understood … Inseparable from this, no doubt, is an experience of being loved and of loving, and the deepening expectation of similar feelings to, and from, others”.
Without a stable early emotional development, children will be less able to form relationships and communicate with others, to learn or to take advantage of their school experiences. The early relationship with mother impacts on peer relationships at nursery and at school, and this can further affect the child’s ability to enjoy school and to be able to share in and learn from group activities.
So what early intervention programmes or treatments can help those who are struggling? An effective intervention recommended in Graham Allen’s report is the family nurse partnership. This programme was developed in the United States over 30 years ago but it has also had impressive results here in the United Kingdom—for example, by improving educational achievement and parenting practices, and by reducing child abuse and crime.
However, some women need more specialised mental health interventions to improve outcomes for their children and will not be able to respond to social or community-level interventions alone. Serious problems can affect women of all ages, cultures and socio-economic groups—for example, parents who themselves have experienced abuse and neglect are more likely to need health-led interventions—and there are other special cases.
Research is clear that mental health problems such as depression, psychosis and anxiety during pregnancy not only carry significant risks for mother and baby but can have long-lasting effects on cognitive, emotional and behavioural development. The complexity of attachment difficulties can be better understood by carrying out psychiatric and psychotherapeutic assessments. Health-led interventions are needed to address these complex and painful situations.
Perinatal and parent-infant psychotherapy can treat distressing experiences such as depression, anxiety and terror by understanding the cause of the difficulties and by focusing on improving the relationship between mother and baby from pregnancy onwards.
Tertiary centres such as the Cassel Hospital are also needed. Sadly, the future of the Cassel is under question. I hope the Minister will recognise the importance of providing specialist mental health services for mothers and their infants rather than waiting for child psychiatry services to intervene at a later stage when problems have already become established.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield. Against the conventions of the House, I stood up and moved across the Chamber during his maiden speech. However, frankly, he spoke with such gravitas and assurance that I assumed he was not a maiden speaker.
If, immediately after birth and before it is three weeks old, a kitten is blindfolded for merely three weeks, Dr Mower at Children’s Hospital Boston has shown that it will remain blind once the blindfold is removed. The plasticity of the brain cannot compensate for the loss as a result of damaged stimulation.
We have in our brain around 100 billion neurons, which have up to 2,000 connections, and we learn by making more connections as we grow. Most of those connections are made in childhood. However, your Lordships’ brains will be altered in their anatomy permanently as a result of sitting through this debate because, hopefully, you will have learned something—even if it is only to go to sleep. A new-born baby has a brain of about 370 grams, and by the time he is 15 or 16 it will be around 1,450 grams in size. That colossal growth occurs mostly during childhood—and what happens in the first three years of life is of crucial importance, as other speakers have already said.
In 1998, Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, set up the Sure Start programme as a result of concern about child poverty. The programme, which was not greeted enthusiastically by the scientists at the time—indeed, there was some scepticism about its value—certainly did not show massive advantages immediately. However, as time has gone on, it is now clear that the Sure Start programme—which is, admittedly, quite expensive but is devoted mostly to children in the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom—has been of massive benefit. It has made a big difference to social cohesion, social responsibility, the reduction of crime in the affected families and to better parenting. It is, quite clearly, a very good programme.
Although there was original scepticism, a recent publication by Dr Melhuish, Dr Belsky and Dr Barnes, of Birkbeck College, shows on a proper basis that the original programme—in my view, it should have been the subject of a controlled trial from the start, but was not; that was a mistake by the Labour Government—has undoubtedly proved to be of great benefit. It is important that we recognise that today.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned many things with which I agree, but he referred, in particular, to the question of the self-esteem of children. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that children who are not rewarded, who lack self-esteem, grow up to be deprived as adults. They are much more likely to be depressed and to show various psychiatric disturbances, and they will tend to pass those problems on to their children, as the noble Lord has said. For this reason, I hope the Minister will assure the House that the Government will continue to protect the Sure Start programme, which, though expensive, has been a clear indication of the value of a properly run programme in these areas.
My Lords, the fact that four noble Lords have chosen to make their excellent maiden speeches today during this debate in your Lordships’ House underlines how well chosen is the Motion that my noble friend Lord Northbourne has laid before us. I join others in offering him plaudits for the way in which he has, during my 12 years here, persistently raised this question again and again and kept this important issue before us. Like some of the noble Lords who spoke before me, I shall focus my remarks on the important report of the right honourable Member for Birkenhead, Frank Field, entitled, The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults.
A rabbi once said, “God was too busy—so He invented mothers”. Perhaps I may be allowed, as a father of four children, to add that He also invented fathers, and that the absence of fathers in the lives of their children has become one of the major factors in the disaggregation of our communities and in the shaping of the next generation of adults. It is estimated that around three-quarters of a million children in Britain today have no contact with their fathers.
In 2002, in a report entitled Experiments in Living: The Fatherless Family, Civitas spelt out the consequences for children who are brought up without a father. It found that these children are more likely to live in poverty and deprivation, to have emotional or mental problems, to have trouble at school, to have trouble getting along with others, to have a higher risk of health problems, and that they are more likely to run away from home and be at greater risk of suffering physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
Mr Field reflects on the rejection of children by their parents:
“Since 1969 I have witnessed a growing indifference from some parents to meeting the most basic needs of children, and particularly younger children, those who are least able to fend for themselves”.
His view is supported by the Millennium Cohort Study undertaken at Bristol University, which showed that the key drivers in determining a child's life chances, measured at the age of three, are: positive and authoritative parenting, the home learning environment and other home and family-related factors. These factors, which Mr Field recommends should be used in the life chance indicators proposed in his report, are predictive of children's readiness for school and of later life outcomes.
These indicators and the foundation years strategy—which other noble Lords have referred to, and which would be the first pillar of a new tripartite education system—may not immediately end income poverty but they can break the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage. Research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions bears this out. The simple involvement of a mother or father who is interested in their children's education increases a child's chance of moving out of poverty as an adult by 25 per cent.
Self-evidently the teaching of parenting and life skills should become a greater priority. The extension of initiatives such as Mumsnet, the kitemarking of beneficial television programmes—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin—and a reassessment of the relentless and corrosive advertising aimed at children, also have their place. Sure Start children's centres can help parents put elementary parameters, essential for later progress, into place—basic things such as getting parents to teach their children how to sit still and listen, how to be aware of others, to understand words like “no” and “stop”, to master basic hygiene, and so on.
Mr Field has in no way changed his view about the importance of tackling poverty but believes, as I do, that a strategy that depends solely on income transfer to remedy child poverty is doomed to fail. My own parents left school at 14 and came from backgrounds of acute poverty—my mother was an immigrant whose first language was Irish, not English—but both knew that a positive approach to learning at home, to encouraging the education of their children and to improving their own qualifications was critical; and that despite the vicissitudes of living in poor housing and in a flat on an overspill council estate, money alone was not the key to transforming the life chances of the next generation. I saw this trump card used by many families in the inner-city neighbourhoods of Liverpool that I represented for 25 years either as a city councillor or Member of Parliament. As Frank Field remarks:
“I have increasingly come to view poverty as a much more subtle enemy than purely lack of money, and I have similarly become increasingly concerned about how the poverty that parents endure is all too often visited on their children”.
Mr Field's report reminds us that it would require £37 billion of further tax transfers per annum to cut child poverty to 5 per cent of all children by 2020. We should take his important report—which points to the need for life chance indicators in foundation years—very seriously, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to his recommendations.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on securing this debate on this important topic, which is of great interest to me; and I welcome the contributions of other noble Lords, in particular those who are making their maiden speech. There is obviously much knowledge in this House in this area. I believe that this debate, as has been said, is timely, as it follows the publication of Frank Field's report in which he explores how the home environment and parental involvement can impact on a child's readiness for school, and the impact of poverty on children's ability to succeed in school and in later life.
I welcome the recommendations in the report to establish a foundation years service and life chances indices to aid and support parents in this vital role. A further recommendation of the report is that the fairness premium, as part of the pupil premium, should be extended to the foundation years. I look forward to hearing my noble friend the Minister’s comments on those recommendations.
There is much research to show that parental involvement both in preparing children for education and in supporting them through their educational journey is crucial. Equally, we all know that being a parent is not always easy and that, for some, their particular circumstances make it even more difficult. Parents may have complicated and disorganised lives; they may have their own health problems that prevent them helping and encouraging their children; they may have had negative educational experiences of their own, or be fearful of the authority which they perceive teachers to represent. In many cases, however, only education will ensure that vulnerable children can move out of the poverty trap, and for that they will need their parents’ help.
If we really want to improve the educational outcomes for our children and have aspirations for them we need to start when they are very young, and we need to make sure that parents are properly confident about helping their children by providing an environment in which they are happy to access services. Many disadvantaged families do not need therapeutic intervention but they do need opportunities to extend the experience of their children—through play, singing, talking, et cetera—so that normal development of the brain can be maintained. These opportunities should be accessible. A programme called the Peers Early Education Partnership—PEEP—had 14,000 visits a year in a local shopping centre where parents could feel comfortable getting support because of the attitude and skill of the staff and because it was open six days a week, for most of the day, in a place where they went regularly and felt comfortable.
Of course, a small minority need more intense and specialised support to deal with the challenges they face, and we need to provide services to address those needs. The coalition Government are clearly aware of these issues and seem committed to addressing them. There is a coincidence of a number of reports, which has already been referred to, and which I hope very much will feed into government policy in this area. Equally, I welcome the Government’s commitment to increase the number of health visitors and support for family nurse partnerships, which shows a real willingness to tackle some of the more fundamental problems in our society. Multidisciplinary working between health visitors and early years practitioners is crucial in enabling them to understand the contribution that each particular profession can make and to co-ordinate their work to make it more effective and less expensive.
This issue is important for national government but also for local government, which provides many of the services; and of course the third sector has an important part to play. In my own local authority, our services for children are underpinned by the concept of “strong families at the heart of strong communities”. We run a range of parenting programmes. One in particular is called Incredible Years and is targeted at families with babies aged up to six months and where there are parental mental health and attachment issues. Many of our programmes are run from children's centres but some can also be offered in the home.
Many noble Lords are involved with charitable and voluntary organisations that are active in this area—I have already mentioned PEEP, which is doing work nationally, and much of whose work has been evaluated by Oxford and Warwick Universities. The charity focuses on supporting parents from their child’s birth through to school age and on developing three aspects of learning with their children: numeracy and literacy, self-esteem, and learning dispositions. Home visits are made soon after birth and there is a programme for families who would benefit from the one-to-one approach.
These are important projects that are intended to help parents become more confident in helping their children to prepare for education. However, it is important, particularly in these financially tough times, that these programmes are based on rigorous evidence and properly evaluated for effectiveness. We need to use the very best research and practice, whether it is from government or the third sector, to ensure that the next generation of our children has all the opportunities that it needs to succeed in life and in education.
My Lords, I join in thanking my noble friend Lord Northbourne for securing this debate on the importance of parenting. The subject and, especially, the role of fathers in bringing up children is one where his considerable expertise and persistence in keeping the subject well up on your Lordships’ agenda have at last paid off. Above all, I want to applaud the recognition that has at last been given to why early intervention is so important in a child’s development—indeed, for their whole life—to say nothing of the value it will bring to society as a whole.
Many reports have been mentioned by my noble friend and other speakers, but I am particularly pleased about the fact that two Labour MPs—Frank Field and Graham Allen—were commissioned by the coalition Government to produce this report. I shall construe that as definitely an indication that there is all-party support for this approach. Ironically, we are also to some extent indebted to our catastrophic economic situation because the Government are increasingly looking for evidence of clear value for any money spent. Therefore, they are at last prepared to acknowledge that locking up offenders, particularly young offenders, produces an endless churn in and out of prison at huge personal, social, and financial cost. I welcome the current Government’s declared policy of keeping as many offenders out of prison as makes sense by imposing more big society-type community sentences, paying more attention within prison to education deficiencies and to training for jobs and having a clearer, more effective approach to treating drink and drug addicts and those with mental health problems. All that is certainly a good start and if combined, as it should be, with effective mentoring and help with housing and finding jobs on release, it should help reduce the level of reoffending.
However, what we are discussing today—early intervention—will be even more effective in reducing the ultimate cost of that group, and it is also clearly the right way to unlock the potential in every child, particularly those with physical or other forms of special needs who sadly appear to be growing in number. It is equally important to give support to the poorest, most deprived families, perhaps particularly to those from chaotic backgrounds whose children are at far greater risk of underachieving or worse at school and afterwards.
In all these situations, the returns are demonstrably beneficial. Overall benefit-to-cost ratios are as high as 17 per cent. Quite clearly, if those parenting a child are capable of giving it unconditional love and support, knowledge of right and wrong and that essential ability to communicate and to make and keep friends at school and beyond, then the resources the state will need to spend on those children will be considerably smaller. That does not mean that no resources should be spent on those children. Your Lordships have only to think back to the time when they all became parents. It may be a fairly terrifying world for every child to be born into, as some experts tell us, but for parents— especially, I emphasise, for mothers—it is a completely new and rather terrifying world as well. That is why the coalition's determination to see that there will eventually be enough midwives, health visitors and nurse partnerships to see all parents through those early stages is to be hugely welcomed.
The professional help and advice that they give, together with other family support, of course, will be invaluable to everyone, but if this is the way forward, two aspects are crucial. The first is that the many government departments involved will be committed to working together and to sharing experience and information about the individuals concerned. The second, which is probably of even greater importance, is that the finance involved will be made available. It is no good starting on this path unless the work can be carried through. I do not mind what sources the finance is found from, as long as they are legal, but they must be there before the Government start down this course. If we achieve this, it will in the long run result in savings at every level from reduced prison and policing costs, societal benefits from less fearful neighbourhoods, the economy and individual fulfilment to much, much more. I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that early intervention is indeed an up-and-running, active commitment of the Government.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Northbourne for calling this debate. I recall Mary Crowley, the director of the Parenting Education & Support Forum, which for many years co-ordinated efforts in this area, telling me that my noble friend called a meeting in the Moses Room several years ago bringing together interested parties in this area and out of that grew the Parenting Education & Support Forum. As the noble Lord, Lord Eden of Winton, said, my noble friend has many years’ practical experience of organising holiday camps for young people from the East End.
I shall make a few quick points. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, made very important points about Sure Start. A recent report from 4Children and the Daycare Trust found that a significant number of Sure Start centres expect to close at the end of the year. One thing that might help is guidance to local authorities on the best priorities to use when some services might be cut; for instance, on choosing between a speech therapist in a children’s centre and some other practitioner, on whether one post can be lost or on looking at a Robin Hood method so that wealthier parents pay while the poorer do not. This might be something on which the Minister could work with the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The Coram Family was mentioned twice. We speak of Sure Start children’s centres, but the original model on which they are based was the Coram model. This brings me to my theme, which is the importance of having the right professional framework to support parents with complex needs, the sort of professional framework that Coram offers so outstandingly.
I am very concerned about the future of the Cassel family assessment unit, and I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Hollins for alluding to her concerns. Will the Minister speak with the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about these concerns? We understood that the decision on its future would be taken last month, but I think there is still some hope that that decision might have been delayed because of other priorities. This centre has faced difficulties. In 2005, a decision in the Court of Appeal lifted the duty on local authorities to provide assessments at this centre of expertise in Richmond. It is a 25-bed unit that works with families, both parents and children, with very complex needs. It is a national NHS flagship institution. It has a good record of keeping families with very complex needs together. Since that 2005 ruling, it has been used less and less. It is hard to justify the continuance of this institution because not all its 25 beds are being used. The problem is that it has not been properly funded. It needs to be nationally funded. It is a specialist service. This is the question before the Government now: shall we fund it nationally? If the Government choose not to, it is currently due to close in May so that is a critical decision. I recognise that the Government have a huge range of priorities to decide upon at the moment but, given the importance of this early intervention, the complex needs and the money saved—as has been made so clear throughout this debate—by intervening at that point with those families, I hope that the Minister will pass these concerns to the noble Earl, Lord Howe. I am most grateful for the conversations I have already had with him on this matter.
I turn briefly to the model developed at Hackney of intervening on parents with complex needs. Over the past three to four years, Hackney has reduced the number of children coming into care from 500 to 270. That is a huge saving in costs on those children and in terms of the courts. That money has been saved and reinvested in the service, half of it being sent back to the local authority. That has been achieved by developing a superb expert framework, recruiting the very best social workers who are working in teams with systemic psychotherapists. Those people have eight years of formation and such high expertise that they can quickly get the children back into their families and support the parents in caring for them. I look forward to the Minister's response.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on securing this most important debate on one of the most intractable issues facing our society today. I also thank him most sincerely for his courtesy in giving me sight of his speech notes and, more broadly, for his terrier-like grip on the subject of parenting and children’s well-being over many years in this House.
We have had a number of maiden speeches today and we welcome them all. The noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, in a most informative contribution, gave us the benefit of his wide experience in this area of children’s special educational needs and mediation. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford gave us a refreshing, moving and most amusing tour of his diocese. As a resident of north Oxfordshire, I hope that our paths will continue to cross both inside and outside this House. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston—I am looking for her; there she is—will be a very important asset to this House, as her clear, humorous and excellent maiden speech demonstrated, while the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, gave us an engaging, arresting, confident and highly enjoyable maiden speech, outlining his great experience with young people. He is most welcome both day and night in this House. They were all excellent maiden speeches and the House is all the richer for the contributions of our new Peers.
The Library note issued for this debate draws our attention to the bulging literature on the subject of educational outcomes and parenting. We know from Leon Feinstein's research, which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to in her contribution that at a very early age—by 22 months—a bright child from a disadvantaged background begins to be overtaken in cognitive ability by a less bright but privileged child. While this is not to say that parenting is more likely to be poor in poor families, it does suggest that when parenting is poor the negative effect starts to accrue very early, well before the child goes to school. Moreover, the effects are cumulative and can markedly shape the lifelong prospects of the child.
Professor Desforges and Alberto Abouchaar undertook a literature review on the impact of parenting, one of their findings being that in the primary age range,
“the impact caused by different levels of parental involvement is much bigger than differences associated with variations in the quality of schools”.
A paper by Ingrid Schoon and Samantha Parsons assessed whether growing up in a socially disadvantaged family has a lasting implication for psychosocial adjustment in childhood. It concluded that,
“generally the study indicates that a stable and supportive family environment provides the ideal context for the child to flourish. In the long run, however, even resilient children are still at least in part handicapped by the experience of early social disadvantage”.
Demos, the think tank quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, states:
“Parents are the principle architects of a fairer society”.
Amen, I say, to that. Philip Larkin, the poet, put it in another perhaps even more succinct way. We conclude that positive, early parenting is essential for children to grow up into healthy, happy, achieving and rounded adults. We know that, and that most parents want to do the best for their children. They worry about whether they are getting parenting right.
A report was published recently by the charity Family Lives, formerly Parentline Plus, which found that a majority of parents felt under pressure to be a perfect parent—pressure mostly from the media, sometimes from Government and from their own parents. So many parents know that good parenting really matters and they want help and advice from time to time. Almost a quarter of parents in the report had sought help from the child’s school on parenting issues, which is to be welcomed. This raises questions on what role the Government—any Government—should have in supporting good parenting.
It is because of the importance of good early parenting in securing positive outcomes for children, and because parents say that they want access to advice and support when they need it, that the Labour Government were committed to developing a wide range of support for parents, including parenting classes. For example, there are all the main Sure Start children’s centres, which my noble friend Lord Winston advocated very well. We built 3,500 of them in our time, which were used by more than 2.5 million children and families. They were all required to offer parenting classes using one of the well evidenced programmes that have been shown to have lasting, positive benefits for children and their families.
The centres were funded to train staff properly to ensure that such classes were delivered effectively, which was most important. Most primary schools and many secondary schools also choose to offer parenting classes as part of the extended activities and family learning programmes, which again were funded by government, because those schools understood the benefits not only to the children and families but for the schools themselves, with improved behaviour and better learning for all. Is the Minister concerned about the proposed closures of the Sure Start children’s centres and the reduction in parenting classes that they provide?
The Daycare Trust, which was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said last week that 250 Sure Start centres may shut altogether, with most others suffering deep cuts to their services. The new early intervention grant to cover Sure Start, although welcome, is considerably less than the grants it replaces, with some suggesting that there will be as much as £1.4 billion of cuts in all early intervention programmes. What impact does the Minister expect that the cuts in local government will have on parenting support?
As many noble Lords have said, by far the most effective approach is preventive—helping vulnerable parents by getting to them early—and, as we believed that to be the case, the Labour Government introduced in many areas the much acclaimed Family Nurse Partnership, developed over 25 years in the United States. This approach attaches specially trained midwives to very young, vulnerable first-time mothers, from early pregnancy and through the first two years of a child’s life. The family nurse teaches and encourages all aspects of positive parenting as well as healthy lifestyles, and helps with strong couple relationships between parents, as marvellously outlined by my noble friend Lady Sherlock. Research in the United States has demonstrated that this approach has long-lasting benefits, including in educational attainment, to children born in the most deprived circumstances, as well as significant savings by preventing problems occurring later on in the child’s life. Will the Government continue to expand the Family Nursing Partnership programme across the country?
This has been a serious and timely debate, with highly informed contributions from noble Lords. Nothing is more important than the well-being of our children, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and my noble friend Lady Massey have said. We are living through austere, sobering times. The Minister may argue across the Dispatch Box about the rights and wrongs of cuts that are being made to services, but one thing that we absolutely agree on is that it is not the children’s fault that we are where we are economically, and that the impact on them must not lead to a lost generation. As well as responsible parenting, we always need responsible government.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on securing this debate and on setting out the issues so clearly and with his customary thoughtfulness. I thank him for the courtesy of sharing his speech with me, which helped me prepare for today’s debate.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and my noble friends Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Lord Lingfield and Lady Stowell of Beeston on their excellent maiden speeches. I cannot add much to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, but I am clear that, different though they were, they were united in their quality, and we all look forward very much to the contributions that they will make in years to come.
I knew that we would have a good debate, and so it has proved. It has been a broad debate that has raised a large number of issues, and I will do my best to respond to the broad themes that have been raised. I associate myself strongly with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, at the outset. This Government, like the previous one, want to improve educational outcomes in our schools and to reduce inequality in our society. I hope that it is also fair to say that this Government, like the previous Government, recognise the importance of the early years in children’s lives and development.
In headline terms, there has been a lot of agreement in this debate—first, that good parenting in the early years matters; love, communication and order are some of the themes that have been picked up repeatedly. Secondly, it has been agreed that, despite most parents doing a very good job, there is clearly a group which needs support. Thirdly, there is a cross-party consensus on the need to tackle those issues. Fourthly, we need to find a way of co-ordinating the efforts that are being made, of sharing good practice and of trying to approach the issue in the round rather than in silos. That is particularly the case when one is talking about families with multiple problems.
Today’s debate is timely, as we have heard, because the Government are considering or have commissioned reviews in four separate but interrelated areas: a review into poverty and life chances by Mr Frank Field; a review into early intervention by Mr Graham Allen; a review into the early years and foundation stage by Dame Clare Tickell; and a review into child protection by Eileen Munro. This is a reflection of the priority being given to this whole area. It is the Government’s intention, as we have been urged by noble Lords, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that we will respond to the reviews by Frank Field and Graham Allen and set out a new policy statement later in the spring.
We know that what happens in a child’s early years is critical to that child’s future attainment, behaviour and happiness. Those points were set out persuasively by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, and my noble friend Lady Walmsley. That is why, in a difficult financial situation, the Government consciously made decisions to try to protect funding as much as possible for the earlier years, keeping spending on schools flat in cash terms, introducing a pupil premium, extending 15 hours of free early education to disadvantaged two year-olds and providing an extra 4,200 health visitors.
I want to say in passing that what we do in schools is important as well. While I fully accept the contention that the early years are crucial, it is equally not the case that a child labouring under some of the disadvantages that we have been discussing is doomed to failure. We can all think of wonderful schools that have high expectations and provide an orderly, caring environment where their pupils achieve at least as well as, or better than, pupils from more affluent backgrounds. I am thinking of schools like Mossbourne Community Academy, which has a very high number of children on free school meals but has outstanding results, or King Solomon Academy, which I was fortunate to visit last week, which is giving the structure, support, engagement and aspiration that those children well might not have been receiving at home.
We have heard a lot of convincing evidence today for why early intervention matters. I was particularly struck by the figures provided by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I listened with care to what he had to say about assessment. It is true to say that, as part of the universal healthy child programme, all children are assessed by a health visitor or a member of their team at two and a half years, and we hope that the expansion of the number of health visitors will make the quality of that assessment better and ensure that it is carried out.
I also learnt from the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that I apparently have 100 billion neurones, which is about 100 billion more than I thought I had and probably 100 billion fewer than the noble Lord, Lord Winston. We know from research that 94 per cent of children who achieve a good level of development at age five go on to achieve expected levels of reading at key stage 1, and are five times more likely to achieve the highest level, level 3, than those who have not reached a good level of development at age five. The National Literacy Trust, of which I was fortunate to be a trustee for many years, has also shown that parental involvement in a child’s reading has been found to be the most important determinant of language and early literacy.
There may be a utilitarian argument there for reading with one’s children. I actually have far more selfish reasons for wanting to read with my children: I never found anything nicer to do. I will probably be attacked for saying this by my daughter, who is now at university, but she asked me the other day to read her a Just William story again, so I must have done something right. We also know that parental support for education continues to be important as children get older. Parental involvement in a child’s schooling between the ages of seven and 16 is a more powerful force than family background, size of family and level of parental education. The Government therefore accept fully that the quality of care and support for early learning that young children receive, and their positive engagement with parents, can make a real difference to later outcomes in life.
Quality childcare and practitioners play a crucial role in supporting the children’s learning and development and engaging with their parents, and it is important that we support the sector to continue that role. The early years foundation stage has helped to promote a consistent approach to early learning and development for children aged nought to five across the sector, and has done much to raise standards and engage parents. We have asked Dame Clare Tickell to undertake a full review of the early years foundation stage, and to look at how best to protect young children’s safety and welfare and support their development and learning. Her review covers four main areas: scope of regulation, learning and development, assessment, and welfare. Underpinning all of this, we will aim to reduce burdens on providers, prepare children for learning at school and better support parental engagement in the foundation stage. We look forward to receiving Dame Clare’s report in the spring.
I accept fully the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, about the importance of Sure Start services. I recognise the work done by the previous Government in getting that network up and running. We know from stories, some of which we have heard today, that Sure Start services can make a real difference to families’ lives. That is backed up by the 2008 and 2010 reports from the national evaluation of Sure Start, which show improved outcomes in a number of areas, including better behaviour, more positive parenting skills and home learning environments, and better physical health of children living in an area with a Sure Start programme.
Sure Start children’s centres remain at the heart of the Government’s vision for early intervention. That is why we have put resources, in a difficult financial situation, into the system to maintain the network of Sure Start children’s centres and have provided the new investment I have already mentioned to pay for extra health visitors.
Last week, the Government published their response to the Education Select Committee report on Sure Start children’s centres. That response sets out more detail about our vision for children’s centres being accessible to all but with a clear role in identifying and supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, with a commitment to be more accountable for the services which they deliver. We will further set out the key role of Sure Start when we publish an early years policy statement, which I mentioned earlier, in the spring. We will develop this in partnership with the sector to set out a new vision for Sure Start children’s centres, and the practical steps for achieving it. Our aims will be to increase voluntary and community sector involvement with children’s centres, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, to try to improve accountability arrangements, to increase the use of evidence-based interventions, and to see whether we can introduce greater payment by results.
I accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, about the issues being faced in some local authority areas as local authorities are looking at their budgets and addressing the future of Sure Start centres. Local authorities are looking at their budgets and are working hard to make the right decisions. Section 5D of the Childcare Act 2006 places a duty on those local authorities to consult before opening, closing or significantly changing children’s centres, and to make sure that there is sufficient children’s centres provision to meet local need so far as is practicable. However, we know that in some local areas families are concerned about whether this will alter their local services. I do not dispute that people have that concern. My honourable friend Sarah Teather, the responsible Minister, is monitoring the situation carefully. Although it is raising difficult issues, which I accept, our basic position is that decisions which affect local families should be taken locally so that services can be managed in ways which best meet local needs.
The Government has announced a national recruitment drive to appoint the 4,200 new health visitor posts I have mentioned. The number of health visitors working with families will increase by almost 50 per cent. The Government have committed to doubling the capacity of the local nurse partnerships. The increase in health visitors will, we hope, reinforce the importance of the relationship between Sure Start children’s centres and health visiting provision. Each children’s centre should have access to a named health visitor. Health visitors have great expertise to deliver universal child and family health services through children’s centres; to lead health improvement on subjects such as healthy eating and accident prevention; to help families stay in touch with wider sources of support, including from the community and other parents; and to be leaders of child health locally, including trying to build partnership between GPs, midwives and children’s centres.
Some of the broad issues that have been raised include families with multiple problems. In December, the Prime Minister set out his ambition to address the concerns of troubled families. I fully accept the point that there is financial sense in doing that, but there is also of course a strong moral need. Successive Governments have grappled with the problem of coming up with approaches that deal with the needs of these families in the round rather than the traditional Whitehall way of dealing with it by department or institution. Central to the Government’s ambition, therefore, will be the development of new approaches to supporting these families, underpinned by freedoms for local authorities to establish community budgets. We are hoping to set these up in 16 local areas to pool budgets for families with complex needs and roll them out to local areas across the spending review period.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, raised the importance of adoption, which we have debated before in this House. Like the noble and learned Baroness, the Government are keen to see more adoptions with less delay in all aspects of the system. The noble and learned Baroness spoke eloquently about particular problems with the courts system. My honourable friend Mr Loughton is taking the lead in addressing adoption, to speed it up and find more suitable people who are able to adopt, including looking at the role of voluntary adoption agencies.
Relationships and marriage is another theme that was discussed today. All noble Lords recognise that strong and stable families of all kinds are the bedrock of a strong and stable society, a point made very persuasively by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. They are the key to ensuring that children grow up in a loving and nurturing environment, and develop into healthy, happy and successful adults. The coalition Government are committed to helping parents to build strong relationships and supporting families through difficult times. We therefore have plans to put funding for relationship support on a stable, long-term footing to try to make sure that couples are given greater encouragement to use existing relationship support.
The Green Paper Strengthening Families, Promoting Parental Responsibility: the Future of Child Maintenance, was published on 12 January. It places a strong emphasis on signposting separating parents to support, including relationship support. Funding of £30 million for relationship support for the spending review period was announced by the Prime Minister in December. That is an increase on current funding levels and I hope it will make some contribution towards helping couples stay together. As all noble Lords have said, the more one is able to do that, the greater the chances a child has of a fulfilled and happy life.
We have also talked today about the role of fathers. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, particularly stressed that; I very much share the views that he set out. One aspect which the Deputy Prime Minister has addressed is proposals on work and parental leave to make the load more equally spread between the mother and father. That is one way in which, in a more difficult situation for many parents today, we can help give fathers more opportunity to be involved in their children’s upbringing.
It has been, as I thought it would be, a helpful and stimulating debate. If I have failed to respond to any particular questions that were put to me I will follow those up outside this debate. I am thinking in particular of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and I will of course speak to my noble friend Lord Howe as he asked me to.
In closing, I cannot do better than quote from the recent report, already referred to today, by Mr Frank Field. The following sentences in particular struck me:
“The things that matter most are a healthy pregnancy; good maternal mental health; secure bonding with the child; love and responsiveness of parents along with clear boundaries, as well as opportunities for a child’s cognitive, language and social and emotional development. Good services matter too: health services, Children’s Centres and high quality childcare”.
As is so often the case, Frank Field puts things extremely concisely. He has summed up our whole debate in those sentences. I share those sentiments; the Government share those sentiments. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for providing us with the opportunity to explore these issues today.
My Lords, when in your Lordships’ House 17 years ago I first mentioned parenting, noble Lords’ eyes glazed over. They clearly did not understand what I was talking about. If I may say so, noble Lords did a great deal better today. It has been a wonderful debate. I very much hope that the Minister will give the House an opportunity to debate this subject after the reports that he promised for the spring have come out. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.