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Education: Early Years

Volume 787: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2017

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to provide high-quality early years education in England.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who will speak in this debate. I very much look forward to their contributions and to the Minister’s response.

There is no doubt that early years education is one of the best possible investments that any society can make, and that every pound spent well delivers returns that will last a lifetime. A young child who is equipped with the experiences and skills to make the most of their life will not only live a much happier life, he or she will make a much more positive contribution to our society and will be a net contributor to their own life and the community in which they live. A young child whose parents have not had the advantage of good parenting or have grown up in poverty will almost inevitably need support to make sure that their own children realise their potential.

At this point I need to draw a distinction between childcare and education. In coalition, we were proud to push the introduction of free childcare and increase it to 30 hours to enable both parents to get jobs and contribute to the family economy. There are, of course, huge problems for childcare providers in delivering the childcare for the money that the Government are willing to provide, but that is a debate for another day.

Many early years providers strive to provide more than just childcare and begin to educate children naturally in ways that many parents do through conversation, learning simple nursery rhymes, simple counting games and a range of practical activities—that is, learning through play. They also try to ensure that parents who need support are encouraged in good parenting habits. However, even at the earliest ages, children will gain most benefit if their nursery can afford to train, develop and pay staff well. Staffing is the largest single cost for childcare providers and the single largest cost as children move into early years education settings.

There is no sharp distinction between childcare and education. Good childcare also develops the child in all sorts of ways and early years education picks up from where the child is and continues to maximise the child’s development socially, emotionally and educationally. But—this is a big “but”—as children develop, they need highly trained staff to enable them to be taken on an educational journey that will equip them to succeed at primary school, secondary school and beyond.

We hear a lot about “narrowing the gap” but high-quality childcare, followed by high-quality early years education, is about not letting the gap widen in the early years and beyond. What we had in England—and, to some extent, still have—is early years provision that, as Andreas Schleicher of the OECD says, is the envy of many other countries. However, the Government seem determined to see our provision decline from the outstanding to the mediocre, with funding to local authorities being cut, not to the bone—it is worse than that. By 2020, some authorities will have lost half their revenue income: they will be forced to spend all their funding on statutory services, with the vast majority being taken by adult social care.

One of the earliest casualties of austerity were the libraries, a valuable free resource for parents of young children. Tragically for education, one-third of Sure Start centres have been lost since 2010, with more than 40% of centres closing in London and the north-east, where many of the most vulnerable families live. Young children in Swindon and Solihull, for example, have no designated centre any longer. Vulnerable children across the country will have a much less sure start than their older siblings.

Yesterday, the State of the Nation report by the Social Mobility Commission reported that there are many areas where less than half of disadvantaged five year-olds reach a good level of all-round development. Only half of local authorities have a clear strategy for improving disadvantaged children’s outcomes. Could it be that clear strategies cost money? I am led to understand that Bold Beginnings, to be published by Ofsted tomorrow, will reinforce the findings of the commission.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said:

“The Commission is completely right to highlight the importance of the early years in improving social mobility … Worse still, the eligibility criteria for the 30-hour policy excludes the poorest families altogether, while offering financial support to households earning as much as £199,000 a year”.

For families where, for whatever reason, both parents are not—or, in the case of one-parent families, the single parent is not—employed, the 30 hours of free childcare is not available. How do the least well-off pay for their children? What has this to do with the needs of the child? Poor children are being penalised on the altar of austerity. Leitch went on to say:

“Add to this the fact that the early years pupil premium is still less than a quarter of what primary schools receive, and it’s clear that the Government has its priorities all wrong when it comes to the early years”.

High-quality early years education depends on the quality and qualifications of the staff in these settings. We are a long way from having graduate-led settings, for which we on these Benches have consistently argued. Each early years setting needs to be led by staff who have been trained in child development. That will enable them to offer children a rich and varied experience, using a wide range of play activities. The training will also enable staff to identify, at a very early stage, any signs that a young child may be more likely to develop, for example, mental health problems. If this is achieved, the savings to the community and to the personal costs to the child will be immeasurable.

On Monday, Liz Bayram, chief executive of PACEY, said:

“Graduate leadership is strongly associated with narrowing the gap between our most and least disadvantaged children. However, we are hearing increasing reports of Early Years Teacher training courses closing, and a rapid decline in the number of qualified Early Years Teachers, as fewer and fewer students choose the early years sector for their teaching career”.

The more we learn about how children develop and grow, the more it reinforces the benefits of investing in the early years. Resources spent on high-quality early years education are repaid in the later years as confident, well-rounded children take full advantage of their education. High-quality early years education is an investment that pays dividends for the rest of that child’s life. An investment in every child’s future is an investment in all of our futures.

My Lords, I begin by complimenting the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on securing the debate and introducing it so well.

When we talk about childcare and early years education, we need to bear in mind the context. If one looks at the social situation, the following facts are striking: 10% to 15% of pregnant women suffer from depression and anxiety, a third of the violence against women is committed against pregnant women, 1 million children in our society suffer from attention or conduct disorders, and 50% of our children below the age of three have experienced family breakdown.

In that context, we must ask ourselves what government policy should be aiming at. It is absolutely right to concentrate on childcare facilities. The importance of early years provision and the Government’s intervention can hardly be overestimated. Such intervention ensures that the disadvantages that a child brings from home are countered, a level playing field for children, and that no child starts school at a disadvantage. It also makes sure that no child builds up resentment and frustration at society for not giving them the chance to live up to their potential. No less important, it makes the rich people in our society realise that the poor are their responsibility and they should be making sacrifices for them.

The advantages of early-years education are absolutely crucial. In that context, I compliment the Government on their plan to introduce 30 hours a week of free childcare for those who earn less than £100,000. I am also pleased that the Ofsted report tells us that the proportion of good and outstanding nurseries, childminders and preschools has risen, and is now at 91%. The gap between children eligible for free school meals and their peers in reaching a good level of development is also declining, and that is warmly to be welcomed.

While welcoming all this, I want to point to a few important difficulties with the Government’s scheme. First, the target—working parents who earn less than £100,000 a year—is a very wide social group. It does not target those who need childcare the most. In other words, it is very important that we should be thinking not about those earning £100,000—lots of people earn £100,000—but people who earn much less, and prioritise them so that their claims are not ignored.

Secondly, the scheme explicitly excludes foster children from the additional 15 hours of childcare. This is discriminating and not terribly rational. Thirdly, the funding for the scheme is inadequate. In several cases, parents have to put down some money to keep the childcare or preschools going. Around 1,000 nurseries and childminders have gone out of business in the last two years—something that should worry those of us who are concerned about the future of our children.

Teachers involved in childcare schemes, preschools and childminding need proper status, recognition and career patterns so that they know where they are on the career path and how they can go further. There must be some chance for them to improve their qualifications so that they are not stuck in a cul-de-sac or simply seen as preschool teachers. They should be able to come out and join the mainstream after acquiring certain qualifications.

Finally, it is striking, as various reports point out, that the range of local children’s services is not integrated, and different branches of local authorities function in different ways, without much co-ordination. There is also insufficient understanding of what constitutes disadvantage. We talk about helping disadvantaged children, but what is disadvantage, how do you measure or quantify it, and how do you deal with it? I have not seen any research in this area or any attempt to highlight the problem. Moreover, there do not seem to be any specific targets to improve the outcomes for the most disadvantaged. In any scheme to improve people’s situation, the goal should be that 10% or 20% can achieve a certain level of outcome. Without that kind of vision, one has no means of knowing how well a particular scheme is doing. With these reservations, I welcome the Government’s proposals and hope the Minister will answer at least some of these questions today.

My Lords, when I decided to put my name down for this debate, I had a series of points that I wanted to make. It does not usually happen, but my noble friend must have been reading the same papers, because he has covered most of my points already. However, one or two things did come across on this scheme.

I was personally rather surprised about the emphasis on term times. Surely if you have a preschool child, having some consistency of approach out of term might be better: 22.8 hours across the entire year might be more helpful to those families.

What really struck me, however, was the same issue that my noble friend raised, but for slightly different reasons: that is, about the graduate-level training of those who are leading these developments. The simple reason is that, if we look at the snappily titled document Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage and take a quick look at the number of things you are supposed to be aware of when working in this area, it is quite an impressive list: communication and language; physical development; personal, social and emotional development; literacy; mathematics; understanding the world—if you have mastered that in your early years, you are doing very well; and expressive arts and design. That is quite a big ask for somebody with NVQ level 2 training. How will you get the development there without high-quality training for at least the leadership of any institution? How will you develop this?

On more familiar territory for myself, my noble friend once again mentioned things such as mental health. However, with any problem you get, if you get it early, generally speaking you deal with it better or at least put coping strategies in place that allow you to deal with it. One of my personal clichés is that we deal with the most severe problems when it comes to disability better than we deal with the minor or less severe ones, when people are just coping. However, if you can identify them in the early years—which requires good training; a degree level course might be a good start—you may be able to do better. Autism at the more severe end will manifest itself early in life. However, for those who have Asperger’s syndrome—the high-functioning, who may well have had major problems with interaction throughout their life—this will develop at any stage when they have others around them. Are we doing something to identify them? The same can be true of dyspraxia, for instance. We can certainly ask, “Do you have co-ordination problems? Are you doing things? How do you develop? How do you move?”. We can go on and on here. For once, dyslexia will not manifest itself that early, but people are asking why we do not try to identify it earlier and earlier, especially if we do literacy. If we have people who are well-trained, they will be able to support, make interventions and get strategies in place.

Anybody who deals with mainstream disability comes across this situation. You go and talk to a group of parents—usually the Tiger parents lead this—and they will say, “I said, ‘Why isn’t my child doing things properly?’, I took it to the teacher, and then we found out that there might be something wrong”. In early years education, this is an opportunity for the teacher to say to the parent, “By the way, I think something might be wrong”. The advantage of that is that, with things like autism in particular, there is often cultural resistance to it. Resistance in certain ethnic groups has been high and is fairly well documented. If we get somebody well-trained to intervene early, you will have less of the cliff edge and things falling over it. I hope that we can look at doing that and develop it over the next few years to make sure that there are people who are trained to spot these conditions early on. If you get your strategies in place, you will lessen the effect.

As regards the structure of the courses, I see that you have to apply online. The help here will be of most benefit to those on lower incomes. I was wondering whether we should do a little test, such as: if you are applying online, can you do it on a fairly bog-standard mobile phone when sitting down and using somebody else’s wi-fi, or do you have to have a fairly good computer and good computer skills? If it requires fairly high-level computer skills and a good computer, you are effectively cutting out most of your client group, because they cannot get at it. The Minister may say that there is a helpline, but we know that helplines get blocked up and that often, if people have to pay for the phone call—we have had lots of fun with that over the last few months—will find themselves not taking it up. I hope that the Government and the Minister can assure me today that somebody has been looking into how easy it is to access this help and structure. If you make things difficult, you always miss those who will benefit most from it. I look forward to the Minister’s speech.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for providing us with an opportunity to highlight, once again, the importance of early years education, one of the most important determinants of a child’s life chances. What is more important than making sure that all children are given the very best start in life? Indeed, the aim of doing so through improved childcare, early education, health and family support lay at the heart of the Labour Government’s creation of Sure Start in 1998.

I say with some sadness that I do not believe that expanding so-called “free” childcare to 30 hours a week for three to four year-olds, as it is currently funded, is the way forward. I say this for two reasons. First, I believe that an early years funding policy which focuses on subsidising childcare for working parents, rather than on child development, risks damaging the quality of early education provision. By failing to target disadvantaged families, whose children stand to gain the most from high-quality early education, I believe that we are also damaging social mobility.

My second objection stems from my knowledge of early years education from the perspective of committed, professional providers in this field. I declare an interest here as my sister is an early years professional, operating two nurseries in deprived areas of Nottingham. I have drawn on her experience when talking about early years education in this House previously, and she shared some thoughts with me before today’s debate.

A tremendous amount of research has been done into early years and into how to achieve high-quality provision. However, as a practitioner, my sister has an admirably short checklist of what is needed for its delivery: a well-qualified workforce, a comprehensive, age-appropriate curriculum, efficient management of provision, an effective inspection regime and the right resources.

This is really quite simple, but none of it is possible without adequate funding. Early years funding rates for 2018-19 show that most local authorities will not receive any additional funding next year, and that 14% of local authorities will actually see a reduction in funding. While the Government’s operational guidance for 2018-19 confirms that local authorities should take no more than 5% out of the funding that they pass on to providers—they have actually been taking more—funding is still woefully short of what is needed. Early years providers have said repeatedly that they will struggle to deliver high-quality care and education—and sufficient places—with the funding available.

I read with amazement in the FT some weeks ago that the children’s Minister, Robert Goodwill, seems to think that good-quality provision can be funded at an average hourly cost of £3.72 an hour. That beggars belief. He said that this was based on recent research. Where on earth did he get these completely misleading figures? It is not surprising that many practitioners are concerned about the sustainability of their business and believe that we need to get back to basics—to stop introducing ever more complicated ways of helping families to pay for childcare and education, and to go back to the original idea of one system of funding; that is to say, a realistic fee, paid direct to providers who are accountable to their local authority.

I suspect that many parents are actually frightened of becoming involved in the multifarious schemes, which include: funding two year-olds from deprived families for 15 hours per week; funding all three and four year-olds for 15 hours a week; since September this year, funding some three and four year-olds for 30 hours per week, in families where each parent can earn up to £100,000 per year—yet foster parents are, for some reason, excluded; and the tax-free scheme, which has been beset by problems.

Of all these schemes, the one that has worked the best and seen the greatest take-up is the original funding for three to four year-olds, with a reasonable rate given directly to the provider. As I recall, this was introduced by the then Prime Minister John Major in 1995.

The reasonable rate is the issue. As early years providers have highlighted for months, you cannot run a champagne nursery on lemonade funding. The campaigning group with that name has a very effective video, which explains simply that, if it costs you £5 an hour to deliver a service for which you are getting paid less than £4, and you are not allowed to increase the fee to cover the shortfall, you will decide either not to offer that service or to cut back on your costs, thereby affecting the quality of the service you can provide. A third option, of course, is to go out of business.

PACEY, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, highlights that the “free” childcare entitlement for three and four-year-olds has been seriously underfunded in many areas, for many years. The National Day Nurseries Association has reported that 89% of private, voluntary and independent nurseries make a loss when providing funded places for 15 hours a week. It is not hard to see why. Nurseries are expected to employ graduates; pay wages above the national living wage rates, which increase at least once a year; pay contributions to employees’ pensions; pay increased business rates; serve high-quality, nutritious meals to combat the obesity epidemic; provide high-quality resources—and the list goes on. For this, in Nottingham for 2017-18 the Government set a local authority hourly rate for three to four year-olds of £4.92. Just over £4 is passed on to the provider, and there will be no increase in 2018-19. Can the Minister please give us any assurance that the Government will review the current funding rates?

Providers cannot continue to operate under these conditions. If funding rates do not increase in line with rising early years delivery costs, nurseries, pre-schools and childminders will go out of business. An Ofsted report earlier this month highlighted that the number of childminders operating in the early years sector has fallen by 26% since August 2012. What action will the Government take to tackle this decline?

My final point is on the need for a properly qualified workforce in early years—an issue raised by a number of contributors to this debate. In her 2012 review, Foundations for Quality, Professor Cathy Nutbrown says that the biggest influence on the quality of early education and care is the workforce. I believe it is crucial that staff working in the early years are highly trained, well managed and well led. They should be offered continuing professional development and enjoy the same status as teaching professionals.

Yet, as the Sutton Trust points out, we have seen the end of financial support for graduate training, the removal of the local authority role in continuing professional development, the lifting of the requirement for Sure Start centres in disadvantaged areas to offer graduate-led early education, and no movement on improving non-graduate qualifications in response to the 2012 Nutbrown review. Can the Minister at least offer any reassurance on the current proposals to remove the requirement for maintained nursery and reception classes to have a qualified teacher?

I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I sound somewhat frustrated in my remarks today, but I have heard how practitioners feel about the funding of the 30 hours of “free” provision, and their frustration is understandable. We must recognise the true cost of providing high-quality childcare or we will reap other, longer-term costs from failing to provide this care. We need a long-term, sustainable funding settlement for providers that will offer families the affordable, high-quality childcare they need.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for bringing forward this debate. In doing so, I declare an interest as the vice-president of the Foundation Years Trust, which is involved in this area. Unlike other speakers, this is not my special area. However, it is something that I am very interested in and I feel very humble in taking part in this debate. I feel strongly about this issue, but I speak as an amateur—as a parent and a grandparent. Any parent thinking about this subject realises the challenge involved and the fact that we all fail. Incidentally, the name on the annunciator is wrong; I am Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, not of Burry Port, as it happens.

Every child in this country deserves the best possible start in life. The early years, which I take to be from pregnancy to the first day of school, have a powerful influence on the rest of a person’s life. The conclusion of the social mobility report, which has just been published, is that learning and development at this stage matters more than any other area. Children from backgrounds with reduced life chances because of their families being more at risk, living in disadvantaged areas or just being poorer have, compared with their peers, worse development outcomes in the early years in terms of vocabulary, reading, numbers, creativity, speech, confidence-building and so on.

The attainment gap between children from low-income families and their peers is slowly closing, but the calculation in the report I have just mentioned is that it will take 40 years at the present rate to close that gap. That means, given the rate at which technology is changing at present, inequality in our society is bound to increase. The good news is that support and good provision really work. Again I quote from the social mobility report:

“Disadvantaged children in the best areas are twice as likely to reach a good level of development at age five, compared with similar children in the worst areas … Poor performance is not concentrated in any type of area, and similar places perform very differently—likely reflecting the role of local authorities and the importance of parenting”.

On the question of parenting, the role of the parents is one of the most important in addressing the early years but also one of the most neglected. All parents want the best for their children. They know more about their children than anyone else. They have responsibility for their children’s development and their role is vital in the early years. Research suggests that of the many drivers of early years development, three which are important are the mental health of the mother, the attachment between parents and their children and the home learning environment, including playing and having fun. A nursery can help—I am all in favour of nursery education; all my children went to nurseries—but it cannot do what a parent can. A nursery will never find the time to do it.

Parents are a child’s first teachers. In that respect, a study published last year from Cambridge University found that the children who had most fun at home were the ones who talked about it and ended up with good development results. It also found that what parents do is far more significant than who parents are. The fact that they are parents—they may not have degrees or may have left school early—and that they have such an interest in their children is extremely important.

The second thing that hits me about this subject is that all parents need support. Some are very fortunate because they have grandparents, step-parents and relatives. Loving, feeding and protecting a child comes naturally to most people but, by contrast, parenting does not come naturally to some and is learned, perhaps, from the example of their parents, from reading or from watching a video or television. There is a need to support parents universally and right throughout the class system. It is potentially difficult to say that parents need support because it may easily appear that you are preaching at people. It may be professionals teaching amateurs, and the amateurs feeling one down to the professionals. There may be a feeling among those who know they are not succeeding that they are stigmatised because of their background. Support should be a natural conversation. It should build on the strengths of the parents, not their failures, and the most effective support comes from their peer group.

The week before last I visited in Birkenhead three projects with early year carers in a charity founded by Frank Field, the Member of Parliament for Birkenhead. All three were different learning environments, but the way the staff related to the parents and their children because the staff were peers with them was remarkable. They were not coming in as professionals, possibly from a different class—probably from a different class—and looking down on them. What surprised me most of all in this group of carers supporting parents was individual mothers saying to me, “This is the only place we ever go to out of the house except for shopping”.

Parenting is extremely important. I am not decrying the need for money and resources, and I go along with what is being said, but this whole area is something we neglect at our peril.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for initiating this debate on an important topic. It is a short debate, but because of the importance of the topic it is one to which we shall return, I am sure, before long.

The early years, as other noble Lords have said, are a crucial period in a child’s development and play a vital role in their chances of success throughout school and into adulthood. If the Government really are serious about social mobility, then that is where they should be focusing—and focusing relentlessly. Improving child development in the early years is vital in ensuring that every child is school-ready, because only that will begin to reduce educational inequality.

All the evidence points to inequality beginning from birth and getting wider as young people move through the education system, from results in school to staying on in education, the qualifications they achieve post 16, the kind of technical courses they take and the universities they attend, if indeed they do. This inequality must be addressed at the roots, in the early years, by offering every child the best start in life to ensure that they are given a fair chance to succeed based on their abilities and their ambitions, and not one that is predetermined, based on geography or household income.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, said that he wanted to make a distinction between childcare and education. I thoroughly endorse that, and my view is that the first is important, the second essential. Without high-quality early years education being available to all, that will never become a possibility. Although much can be achieved once a child starts school, in many cases that is too late, with the gap in development at the age of four between those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds in some cases already beyond the point where it can be bridged. The latest figures show that 30% of children have fallen behind in their early learning by the age of five, significantly impacting on their chances of success throughout school and in their later lives. That figure is worse for the poorest children, who last year were twice as likely as their classmates to be behind in basic skills at the age of five. If childcare and early years education policy are designed to improve child development at the earliest opportunity, to ensure that all children are school-ready to reduce educational inequality, and to support parents, particularly mothers, in returning to the workplace, the 30-hours offer looks likely to fail on both counts.

The families who most need the economic support—that is, those who are unemployed or on low wages—are not eligible for the additional childcare. Nearly 400,000 three and four year-olds are not eligible because their parents are not in work, and a further 110,000 are not eligible because their parents earn below an arbitrary income threshold set by the Government. This represents a clear promise to thousands of working parents who, it later transpired, would not be given the expanded childcare entitlement.

At 30 hours, even where parents are able to access it, it is not without problems. The first difficulty is in getting a code, but parents are finding that, even when they have that, they cannot then immediately start the childcare because they have to wait until the end of the current three-month period. Once they have started, they have to re-register every three months, both with the nursery and with HMRC. It is a bureaucratic nightmare. I have to ask: why is it so difficult? It surely need not be, and certainly needs to be made more accessible. If it were, there would be greater uptake.

This also impacts on a very worrying fact, referred to by my noble friend Lady Warwick. It has recently emerged that more than 3,000 three and four year-old children in foster care are not eligible for the additional 15 hours of free childcare a week. Two days ago the Minister stated, in reply to questions from my noble friend Lord Beecham, that the Government had no plans to change that policy. Frankly, it beggars belief that such a distinction should be drawn, excluding children who, given their life experience thus far, are surely at least as deserving, if not more so, of the additional childcare as children from established families. To hide behind the default excuse, as the Minister did in his answer, that the policy is being kept “under review” is unacceptable. He needs to tell us why the Government decided to discriminate against foster children and their foster parents and why, having reconsidered that decision, they have now decided to reinforce it. I say to him that the DfE is in a hole on this issue and it should stop digging. It should treat foster children and foster parents with the respect they deserve and do it now, as a matter of urgency.

This issue reinforces the view that the Government’s policies have increasingly ignored the role that childcare and early years education can play in child development, and increasingly regarded it simply as an economic policy. Statements made have highlighted improvements in maternal employment rates and parents taking on additional hours, with less focus on benefits to child development.

This loss of focus, coupled with serious underfunding of providers, as my noble friend Lord Parekh said, is making it increasingly difficult for provision to be universally high-quality, with low funding levels making it difficult to attract the staff needed to move towards a graduate-led workforce for the sector. As it stands, childcare policy is failing effectively to serve the goals of improving child development and reducing inequality on the one hand and boosting parental employment rates and incomes on the other. There is no reason why these aims should be mutually exclusive.

In government, Labour created the Sure Start programme, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. When Labour left office in 2010, there were more than 3,600 children’s centres, reaching 2.8 million children and their families. It gave those families the best start in life, providing parenting support, childcare for children and job training for adults as well as healthcare and advice. There are now more than 1,500 fewer designated Sure Start children’s centres, with about one closure per week. In 2015, Sam Gyimah MP, then Children’s Minister, announced a consultation on children’s centres. I asked the noble Lord, Lord Nash, in March this year where that was. The answer was that it was under review. It is apparently still under review. I ask that it now emerge from review and actually take place.

I am concerned about the critical shortage of early years graduates across the country. Earlier this year, the DfE published its early years workforce strategy. We welcomed the recognition of the positive impact that early years teachers have on children struggling with basic skills and the commitment to look at growing the number of early years teachers, particularly in the most disadvantaged areas. However, the figures are not encouraging. The number of people enrolled in early years initial teacher training fell significantly last year from 2,300 to just 860. Save the Children has identified a shortage of 10,000 trained nursery teachers up and down the country. Urgent action is needed to plug that gap if the impact on children’s development that we are all striving for is to be achieved.

An important point about the quality of teaching is that the DfE showed earlier this year that 20,000 nursery workers were being paid below the national minimum wage. Despite flouting the law, those nurseries receive millions of pounds of public money every year through free childcare offers and subsidies that help parents meet their childcare bills. If it is below the national minimum wage, it is poverty wages, and it leaves nursery workers, many of whom are parents themselves, struggling to make ends meet each week. Again, I raised this in March with the Minister’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Nash. He said:

“That is an extremely good point. Nurseries are of course legally required to pay the national minimum wage and, just as any other organisation or business, they risk fines or even prosecution if they do not. We will be vigilant in this regard”.—[Official Report, 23/3/17; col. 264.]

In what way have the Government been vigilant and what action has been taken in terms of enforcement?

The Government are rightly investing in childcare because of the important role it plays in tackling inequalities. It helps parents work, and high-quality childcare helps narrow the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. It certainly serves social mobility. We want the Government to do more and put more resources into it so that more families can benefit. If the Minister is not able to answer the questions that I have asked today, I hope that he will do so in writing on some of the issues, because they have been raised with me by many people involved in day-to-day provision of early years.

My Lords, I am pleased to answer this Question for Short Debate. It is widely acknowledged that the first five years of a child’s life are critical: they are the foundation years, shaping their development and preparing them for school. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, is correct in saying that speech and language gaps appear by the age of two and that early difficulties with language can affect pupils’ performance throughout primary school, with impacts being felt into adulthood. This Government are determined to close this gap and improve social mobility, extending opportunity to all. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Watson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, that the evidence consistently tells us that early years provision can have a positive and lasting effect on children’s outcomes, future learning and life chances. And I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Griffiths that the role of parents in a child’s development is also crucial.

We have already taken a number of steps towards improving the quality of early education and outcomes for children, as well as the affordability of childcare for families. To provide some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, by 2019-20 we will be spending around £6 billion a year on childcare support, a record amount. Our offer to families includes the 15-hour entitlement for disadvantaged two year-olds, the 15-hour entitlement for three and four year-olds and, more recently, the additional 15 hours for three and four year-olds with working parents. This is on top of the support being provided through tax-free childcare and universal credit. As well as giving children the best possible start in life, these entitlements, particularly 30 hours of childcare, are also reducing the childcare costs for working parents. The noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Watson, may know that a lone parent has to earn only around £6,000 a year to be able to access the 30 hours of free childcare.

The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, is correct in saying that Ofsted last week released new data confirming that in 2017, 94% of early years and childcare providers are now rated good or outstanding, the highest proportion ever recorded. This is an increase of 20% since 2012. On outcomes, the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, might be interested to know that the latest results from the early years foundation stage profile assessment, which measures children’s development and school-readiness at the end of reception, tell us that children’s development is also improving. The number of children achieving a good level of development at the end of reception continues to increase year on year—71% in 2017, up from 52% in 2013—but we are not complacent. We recognise that there are challenges and remain committed to continuing to improve the quality of early education so that children can achieve the best possible outcomes. We are doing this in a number of ways: from support for workforce development to improvements in literacy and language teaching and monitoring the impact of 30 hours of free childcare, as well as ensuring that children with special educational needs and disabilities can access early education provision.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, are concerned about workforce training. The evidence is clear that a high-quality early years workforce can have a major impact on children’s outcomes. A well-qualified workforce with the appropriate knowledge, skills and experience is crucial to deliver high-quality early education and childcare. In March 2017 we published the Early Years Workforce Strategy, which outlines the Government’s plans to help employers attract, retain and develop early years staff to deliver high-quality provision. We are working closely with employers and training providers to strengthen level 2 qualifications and ensure that they better support practitioners’ progression to level 3 and beyond. We will be consulting on the proposed criteria for the new level 2 qualifications shortly. A new level 3 apprenticeship standard, designed to support the effective development of early years practitioners, is also near completion.

We continue to support graduates into the sector through our funding of the early years initial teacher training programme, including bursaries and employer incentives. I am also pleased to announce that we have recently established a new working group of early years stakeholders to consider how we can improve gender diversity in the sector. This group includes practitioners, training providers, unions, academics and employers. We believe that a diverse early years workforce that reflects wider society will help to enhance children’s experiences.

Research shows that five year-old children who struggle with language are six times less likely to reach the expected standard in English at age 11 than children who have good language skills at that age. At the Conservative Party conference in September, we announced a number of actions to tackle this astonishing finding. We will provide more funding to help schools strengthen the development of language and literacy in the early years, with a particular focus on the reception year. This includes establishing a £12 million network of English hubs in the northern powerhouse to spread effective teaching practice, with a core focus on early language and literacy as their first priority.

In September this year we also announced that we would take steps to improve the early years foundation stage profile, including reviewing what is assessed at the end of reception. We will be working closely with schools and early years experts as we implement these changes. It is important that we get this right, so changes will not be rolled out nationally until the 2020-21 academic year. We have also put in place measures to ensure children with special educational needs and disabilities have access to high-quality education. The new disability access fund is worth £615 per year per eligible child, paid to the provider. We have required all local authorities to introduce inclusion funds to support children with special educational needs.

Turning to the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, our total hourly average funding rate for two year-olds has increased from £5.09 to £5.39 from April 2017. All local authorities have seen increases in their rates for two year-olds. We are also investing in the early years pupil premium to support better outcomes for three and four year-olds. This is worth over £300 per year per eligible child.

The department’s Review of Childcare Costs took into account future cost pressures facing the sector, including the national living wage. Our average rates to authorities compare favourably with recently published research into the hourly cost of childcare by Frontier Economics, as part of a study of early education and development.

We are committed to evaluating the impact of 30 hours’ free childcare. The evaluation of the early delivery areas published in July and August this year did not find any impact of 30 hours on the universal 15-hour offer. Building on this, the department is in the process of commissioning an evaluation study to assess the implementation and impact of the policy in the first two terms of national rollout.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, raised the issue of Sure Start centre closures. It is up to local authorities to decide the best solutions for their area. They are best placed to understand local needs and how to meet them. Where councils decide to close a children’s centre, they must demonstrate that children and families, particularly in the most disadvantaged areas, will not be adversely affected and that they are still meeting the duty to have sufficient children’s centres to meet local demand.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, raised issues around children with special educational needs. We are doing several things in this area that he may be aware of. The first is the introduction of the new phonics screening check for children in year 1, which should pick up those children struggling with early literacy. We are funding the special dyslexia trust to raise awareness and support for parents and schools, and are working with the National Association for Special Educational Needs and other experts in the sector to ensure that schools have access to the Inclusion Development Programme training materials on dyslexia and other common forms of special educational needs.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Parekh and Lord Watson, raised concerns over foster children accessing childcare. Children in foster care are already entitled to the universal 15 hours of free childcare. Carers also receive funding and support for the care of their foster children, including a national minimum allowance and favourable treatment in the tax and benefits system. We are in the first term of the 30 hours’ free childcare offer and will continue to keep the policy under review to see how it is working for families, including children in foster care.

The Minister has basically repeated the Answer to my noble friend Lord Beecham’s Written Question that was given this week. The basic question is: why should there be any difference at all? Foster children are allowed the 15 hours but not the 30 hours; ordinary children who were allowed the 15 hours have moved on to 30 hours. Why is there a difference?

My Lords, it might be useful to write to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, to set out our thinking. At the moment I do not have the detailed information to hand, but I will do that.

In closing, I thank noble Lords again for their contributions to this important debate today. Many important points have been raised and I will write to address any of those that I have not had time to respond to fully. The Government are very clear that the early years are a critical time which influences outcomes for children and their families. We have achieved a huge amount, but there is still a lot more to do, particularly to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. We remain committed to continuing to improve the quality of early years education to make sure that every child improves their life chances and has real opportunities to realise their potential.

House adjourned at 7.56 pm.