My Lords, evidence strongly shows that good-quality early years provision has benefits for children’s educational development, particularly for disadvantaged children. This Government are improving children’s outcomes through key reforms including additional funding for disadvantaged children through the early years pupil premium, the introduction of 15 hours a week of funded early education for the most disadvantaged two-year olds and providing up to 85% of childcare costs through universal credit.
I thank the Minister for that reply. As he has acknowledged, there is overwhelming evidence that links poverty with poor educational outcomes. This starts with the poorest children not being school-ready at the age of five and becomes a widening attainment gap as they progress through school. How can the noble Lord justify the latest report from the Children’s Commissioner which shows that since 2010 the Government’s tax and welfare measures have in fact widened—not reduced—the poverty gap, with the poorest 10% of households with children suffering the greatest losses? Is that not inevitably going to damage their education and life chances? It is not a great legacy for this Government, is it?
The most important thing to combat poverty is to improve the economy and I think that nobody could argue that this Government have not done a great job on that. It has resulted in 300,000 fewer children living in relative poverty and nearly 400,000 fewer living in workless households.
My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that over the past five decades the gap has stayed the same, if not widened. Does he agree that all the evidence suggests, as we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that the provision of high-quality early years provision in dealing with the problems of poverty is a way of tackling this problem? Does he agree that we should extend the provision for all two and there year-olds and the provision of a pupil premium?
My noble friend is entirely right that the attainment gap in early years is stubborn, although under this Government the number of pupils achieving five good GCSEs has risen from 31% to 38%. It is a question of money and we do not currently intend to extend this further, although I can say that of the 260,000 two year-olds eligible for this provision, on the latest figures, 150,000 are taking it up, which is a remarkable achievement in terms of an increase in provision.
Does the Minister agree that child health is also affected by child poverty, and that child health in turn affects educational achievement and child development? How are the Government maintaining links between child health and education at government and local level?
The noble Baroness is quite right in this regard. Health is closely tied to achievement, and we work very closely with colleagues across government to ensure that children get all the support they need. In particular, we worked closely with the Department of Health on the passage of the Children and Families Act to ensure that the reforms to special needs and disability, impacting on one-fifth of children, would ensure joined-up provision. Our new entitlement to nutritious free school meals for all infant pupils is another example of this Government working together to support children’s health and achievement. As the noble Baroness will know, there is a lot happening in mental health as well.
My Lords, hungry children make poor learners. In view of today’s all-party parliamentary inquiry into food hunger in the UK, will the Government now accept that chronic hunger and food poverty blight this country? Will they take action, including in their policy on benefit sanctions, which the inquiry found to be an important contributory factor to the increased need for food banks?
We welcome the APPG report on this matter; it raises some interesting points and recognises that it is a complex issue. Of course, the level of take-up of food banks is a relatively new phenomenon. It went up 10 times under the previous Government. The OECD tells us that the use of food banks in this country is in fact well below the international averages. The key way of reducing the dependence on food banks is through education so that people are more likely to be in work and are able to prioritise their funding better, making work pay through our reforms to the benefit system.
It is true that this Government have done a huge amount for disadvantaged children: the pupil premium, reforms to the curriculum, reforms to the exams and making sure that particularly disadvantaged pupils have that core cultural knowledge that is so essential, as has been acknowledged by many, including the Labour MP Diane Abbott. As we know, the number of pupils who got that core cultural knowledge under the previous Government fell from 50% to 22%. Thanks to our reforms, it is now up to 40%. Some 800,000 more children are being educated in good and outstanding schools than in 2010, and Ofsted tells us that our school system is in the best shape ever.
My Lords, the Government have very commendably given early years provision to two and three year-olds with discretionary places for other vulnerable groups, but Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children have hardly benefited from this at all. What assessments have the Government made with regard to the early childhood development of children in these groups, most of whom live in poverty?
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the development of children’s brains and therefore their whole life chances and attainment are crucially affected by the diet of pregnant women? What steps are the Government taking to improve the diet of pregnant women on a low income?
My Lords, has the Minister heard of the report At What Cost? produced by the Children’s Commission on Poverty, which is a group of young people supported by the Children’s Society? If the Minister has come across the report, what will the Government do about the recommendations in it?