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Child Development

Volume 764: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage the sharing of information about a child’s development between children’s centres and local schools.

My Lords, the Government are working to strengthen links between schools and children’s centre services. Statutory guidance stresses the importance of children’s centres working with partners for the benefit of children and their families. If centres are providing childcare, they need to comply with early years foundation stage requirements around information sharing when a child moves to a new provider, such as a school reception class.

I thank the Minister for that response. Is she aware of the report on children’s centres from Action for Children which states that 36% of children’s centres have no arrangements for sharing information on child development with schools? Does she agree that enhancing the role of children’s centres and making them available to schools would ensure better results for children? Do the Government agree that cutting children’s centres is no way to go about things?

I am aware of the report from Action for Children. The flip side is that 65% of children’s centres have arrangements. Obviously there is more to be done. We want those arrangements in place across the system, which is why the Government have awarded £5 million to 77 teaching schools alliances across the country to partner with local early years providers to drive up standards and share best practice.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is only by having children’s centres that crucial data sharing can take place? The result of a freedom of information request by the Children’s Society shows that spending on children’s centres this year alone has fallen by 17%, with the consequence that even more than the 600 that have already been closed will close their doors. Does the Minister share my concerns?

Children’s centres provide extremely valuable services, but I think we all agree that what is most important is the impact that these centres have on the ground and on the families that need them most. In Bromley, for instance, the number of centres did indeed reduce from 18 to six, but these centres are now located in the areas of greatest need and have universal and very targeted services. As a result, the number of families accessing this vital support has actually increased. We are now seeing a record number of families using children’s centres.

Does my noble friend agree that this Government have done more to help very young children to have the maximum opportunity in their education than any Government in the past?

Indeed I agree with my noble friend. In fact, the Government are spending over £2 billion a year on early intervention. We have the pupil premium, which is helping to improve educational outcomes, and the early years pupil premium, which is helping to narrow the attainment gap for three and four year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds. Crucially, we now have a million more pupils in good or outstanding schools, because we know that education is key to the life chances of young people in this country.

Obviously, professionals caring for children need to have the full facts, but will the Minister confirm that information will not be passed around without informing the parents of those children?

Would the Minister also consider extending to foster parents the courtesy shown to looked-after children? My mailbag is full of complaints about how different schools operate the funding allocated to those children. The foster parents themselves are prohibited from asking questions because they could be deregulated from the system. Several foster parents, especially middle-class black women, claim that the schools accuse them of expecting too much from those schools, simply because the children of the parents who are now fostering went to public school. This is jolly unfair, and I ask the Minister to look again at how much information is available to those foster parents.

I thank the noble Baroness for raising her concern. I will certainly take it back to the department and raise the issue.

Picking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, will the Minister give us an assurance that other agencies, apart from schools and children’s centres, that are in possession of information that might have an impact on how children develop—this might include, for example, the health service, the police and sometimes social services—share that information appropriately within the guidelines, and that children’s life chances are not spoilt for the lack of that information circulating?

As I said, there are rules around this. In fact we are having a consultation around the future of children’s services that will be very broad-ranging: it will look at how they can support young people, families and children, and at how different agencies work together. That will be a great opportunity to ensure that we are raising and dealing with any issues that might still be outstanding.

My Lords, I hope this question is relevant. One area that is not being studied, and which I think should be, is the effect of new technology on children’s development—and ultimately on that of adults. A few days ago, the press said that there is a common pattern of children waking up in the middle of the night to see if they have any messages or whether they should send some. It seems to me that someone should collate this information to find out exactly what is happening and what is likely to be the result.

I thank the noble Lord for that question. I am sure that there is a lot of work being done. This a fast-moving area with lots of new research. It is certainly something to which the Government will remain alive.

Will the review of children’s services of which the Minister talks also consider the availability of children’s mental health services, which in many parts of the country are totally inadequate for the needs of children? Will the review cover that and look at the question of adequacy?

It will be a wide-ranging public consultation on the future of children’s services and I am sure that children, families and young people with mental health needs will be included. We look forward to listening to the views of the public, carers, local authorities and all interested parties about how these services could be better delivered in future.