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Northern Powerhouse: Early Years Attainment

Volume 767: debated on Tuesday 22 December 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they plan to address the report The State of the North 2015: Four Tests for the Northern Powerhouse, in particular the statement that there is a 12 percentage point gap in early years attainment between the poorest children in London and those in the north of England.

My Lords, the Government are investing in transport, science and innovation alongside devolving powers to local areas to raise productivity, increase employment prospects and enhance transport links in the north. Since the Institute for Public Policy Research report was published, the early years attainment gap it refers to between the north and London has narrowed. The latest early years foundation-stage profile shows that it has decreased from 12 to 10 percentage points.

I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. May I press her about the early years foundation-stage profile, which is for children aged five at the end of their first year in school, covers seven areas of learning and gives teachers a good picture of how the child is developing? However, I understand that this profile will not be statutory after September 2016. Will this not leave a gap in how we can assess child development, will anything replace it, and how will we know what is happening across the country?

Obviously, the early years are a critical time in a young person’s development, so of course we will continue to assess development at this early stage. It is encouraging that in the north the gap has begun to close, but it is also somewhat concerning that a gap remains between the top and bottom deciles. Therefore we are looking both to improve the quality of early years by improving the quality of the workforce and expanding access, and to support vulnerable families to ensure that those who are most deprived are not left further behind.

My Lords, educational attainment in my home city of Liverpool was at the bottom of all the core cities. It then went to the top of all the core cities, under a Lib Dem council. That was because of a concentration on early years, support for teachers and for schools, and the organisation of the schools. Does the Minister agree that that is how you raise educational attainment?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord, which is why we focus very much on improving the quality of the early years workforce and why we are focusing resources through the early years pupil premium, which was introduced in April 2015. The pupil premium for secondary schools was of course a coalition achievement. Focusing resources on the most deprived is extremely important, and we will continue to do that.

My Lords, will the Government relocate any public bodies to the north—that is, to the northern powerhouse—a bit like the BBC moved up to Salford?

I am afraid I am not entirely sure on that point. However, we will be establishing a network of industry-led national colleges, which will be operational from September 2017. They will include the National College for Onshore Oil and Gas, which will be headquartered in Blackpool, the National College for Nuclear, which will have one of its hubs in Cumbria, and the National College for High Speed Rail, which will be based in Doncaster, so we will certainly be encouraging organisations to move to and develop in the north.

The answer is extremely complex, but the most important thing is to ensure that all young people across the country are supported, and that is why we are focusing resources on the most disadvantaged through various programmes. There is a multitude of factors, such as deprivation and low academic achievement, meaning that families may not have been able to achieve over a number of years. That is why we are focused on helping vulnerable families and vulnerable children through a range of programmes and resources, targeting the finances where they are most needed.

My Lords, when the assessment mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, gives so much information about the development of a child at the age of five, why is the Welfare Reform and Work Bill delaying any such assessment until key stage 4?

As I said, we will continue to ensure that we look at the development of young children from an early age. We are working with local authorities and charitable organisations on the ground to make sure that we provide the best resources that we can to vulnerable families. There are a number of very good projects going on in the north: a project in Durham is bringing agencies together to focus on children’s well-being; Wigan is one of eight local authorities piloting an integrated education and health review for two year-olds; and, through the vulnerable families programme, we are bringing local services together. So we are learning from practice on the ground to try to ensure that we target resources on the families who need them the most.

Perhaps I may return to my earlier question about the assessment of children. What will replace the early years foundation-stage profile, which disappears in 2016?

My understanding is that that is still being considered in the Department for Education. However, as I said, we are looking very closely at where we can make the most difference to young people’s lives. Of course, whatever takes over from the early years foundation stage, we will ensure that it continues to be a focus.

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register. I congratulate the Government on their work so far in creating the northern powerhouse. Will the Minister ensure that rural communities are not left behind and that, in particular, the plight of rural schools and rural transport is not lost sight of?

I can certainly offer my noble friend that reassurance. Rural communities remain at the forefront of the Government’s mind.

My Lords, the Government have already rowed back on their manifesto commitment to double free childcare for all three and four year-olds. Does the Minister not accept that that age group is very important in terms of early years attainment and that it should be targeted with all the resources available?

We are indeed doubling the amount of free childcare for children in that age group. We are also providing free childcare for 40% of disadvantaged two and three year-olds. In addition, through the early years pupil premium, we are targeting resources to provide additional support for disadvantaged three and four year-olds. It is certainly a group that we are very keen to ensure resources are properly directed to.