Skip to main content

Early Years Education

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 30 November 2023

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That this House takes note of the importance of good quality early years education provision and environments, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, this debate could not be more timely. I am extremely grateful to noble Lords who have put their name down to speak this afternoon, despite the hour and the weather.

In the spring Budget, the Government made £4.3 billion of new investment to expand entitlement to childcare. For children between nine months and three years, who will be offered 30 hours of funded—not free—childcare per week from April 2024, this was extremely welcome. I want the Minister to know that we are grateful indeed for, and acknowledge the significance of, that investment. Why was this new funding therefore received by the childcare sector with more alarm than joy? Briefly, it is because it has become clear over the past seven years that the sector is simply too fragile to deliver additional places at the price that the Government are prepared to pay for them, without putting even more providers at risk and adding to the potential erosion of the service. Since the Government are actually purchasing about 80% of all childcare hours the providers, especially in the poorer areas, will be made even more vulnerable because there will be less scope for asking richer parents to pay more.

At the heart of this issue, therefore, is the chronic and cumulative underfunding of the existing provision for three to four year-olds, which led the Institute for Fiscal Studies to estimate yesterday that funding was 10% below that which it was in 2012, and that funding will simply not reach many of the poorest families at all. It is that which is raising the alarm now among providers and parents, and that alarm is shared by the Select Committee on Education, which reported in July that without every effort, the extra places cannot be delivered—and possibly cannot be delivered without risk—and that the existing places may become more vulnerable.

Yesterday, the Government announced that £400 million would be available for the policy. Again, that is welcome news but, in a complicated funding environment, I have to ask the Minister for further clarity. Can she tell me whether this, or a proportion of it, is new money? What and who, and exactly how, will it be funding? Can she just give us those details for greater clarity? How will it improve the situation for the many existing providers who provide just for three to four year-olds? How will it incentivise those who want to expand the service to the younger children?

When there is such huge investment at stake, it is really dispiriting that we cannot be certain that, with the best intention, extra places can be provided, that objectives will be met and that there will not be such perverse outcomes. Those perverse outcomes were baked into the Childcare Act 2016. It gives me no pleasure to say this but I and many others, informed by the childcare networks, warned in this House then that unless places were fully funded, there would be an exodus of providers that could not afford to bear the burden of expansion. It turned out that the funding provided was a quarter of what was estimated to be needed.

I also make the point that the Government’s own objectives short-changed the children involved. While the emphasis was on getting parents back into work, there was no equivalent urgency or assurance on quality or educational outcomes, especially for those with special needs. The child, it seemed, had been left out of the policy—so it still seems, but it is so much worse now after Covid. In the short term, we can already see the impacts: the sustained loss of language, learning and socialisation in very young children, which is of course worse in disadvantaged areas; a wildfire of absenteeism in secondary schools; and a breakdown of some basic trust between parents and schools about the value of attendance. Then there is the ultimate broken environment: the crumbling concrete, which puts children and teachers at risk.

I have enormous respect for the Minister. This policy is not of her making but I know that she and her colleagues, like us, want it to succeed. She will also know that when I say that childcare provision has been knowingly underfunded, I am referring to the information obtained directly from her department, revealed by a freedom of information request from the Early Years Alliance, which shows that in 2015 DfE officials were already worried about a funding gap and had already estimated that, by 2021, the hourly costs for funded-hours entitlement for three and four year-olds would reach £7.49. In 2021, however, providers were receiving only £4.89 for each place.

The foundations were being undermined from the start, because the original gap between what the Government were prepared to pay for and what it actually costs to care for and educate a young child has widened every year, accelerated by inflation, the cost of living increases and minimum wage increases. In 2024, providers will get £5.62 per place. The sector estimates that the real cost is over £9.

What is clear is that, across all comparisons, the UK is still the third most expensive of all OECD countries for childcare. This bears down most on families who earn less than £45,000; they do not qualify for universal credit but cannot afford the £14,000 now estimated as the annual cost of one child in full-time preschool care. Parents and children are falling through the cracks. But the present crisis is not just about financial shortfall; there was another gross failure in 2015. Staffing accounts for 70% of costs. What was crucially needed was a workforce plan in place dedicated to building the childcare workforce of the future, with provision for training and professional development and a clear focus on learning outcomes. That did not happen.

Instead, funding was grafted on to a service which was already struggling with retention and recruitment. Ofsted has shown that the service has shrunk from 85,000 providers to 60,000 since 2015. According to the Early Education and Childcare Coalition and the University of Leeds, 57% of nursery staff and 38% of childminders are considering leaving the service in the next 12 months. A workforce plan is more urgent now. We cannot start soon enough. I urge the Minister to go back to her department and urge her colleagues to put in place the beginnings of a workforce strategy, because it is in the poorest areas that we have the greatest impacts as it is where children’s preparation for school and attainment in school is lowest.

I am afraid I have a few more statistics. Half of providers exist just on the margins of profitability. The National Day Nursery Association estimates that the average setting has lost £32,000 as a result of those 15-hour places for three to four year-olds, and 96% of those were good or outstanding; these are not poor providers. Ofsted’s latest figures—from August 2022—up to now show a loss of 3,200 additional providers. The fastest exodus from the profession is by childminders, who are becoming an endangered profession. Of all these statistics, the most alarming I have seen is an estimate that by 2035 there will be only 1,000 childminders left in the UK.

To be graphic, what we are watching is a system which has been unequal from the start become more unequal, more unfair and more inefficient. Women are still being held out of the workplace and we need them to be as fulfilled and as productive as possible, particularly in the poorest areas. The Early Years Alliance is a good example. It is one of the largest community-based providers. It has 132 settings four years ago in the most deprived areas; now it has 42. It is in the childcare deserts that childminders have left at the fastest rates. They are the areas where the pressures on preschool settings are the greatest because there are so many fewer high earners who can help cross-subsidise the system. When 80% of those places are funded for poor families, you do not have the scope to borrow and cross-subsidise. You have two choices; cut the hours of your staff or cut your staff entirely. Perhaps the Minister will say that a low take-up reflects lower birth rates or that women are choosing to work from home more. If she does, I urge her to give us the evidence for that.

We can all agree that we will never deliver for children unless the Government deliver for the early years’ educators, who feel “undervalued” and “under-respected”, in their words. We really need a review of pay and conditions. Nearly half of them survive on benefits or tax credits. The Sun recently put out an article with the 20 least popular jobs in the country. At the bottom of the list, earning about £22,000, were early years educators. What does that say about the value we put on children? It is estimated that it would take five early years educators pooling their resources to afford an average-price house.

I have a few related questions. Why was there no reference at all in the Autumn Statement to the impact of higher minimum wages on those caring for three to four year-olds? Exactly how many new places are expected to be created for younger children with the new money? How many new staff will be needed, and how will they be found and retained? What is the plan?

What is the estimate of the number of younger children under the new scheme who will come from families on universal credit? How will that be evaluated? Has DfE made any estimate of the amount of dead weight—parents who are presently paying but who will move, by different means, on to the funded places? How is that being evaluated? Why have the Government rejected all the evidence from the sector and parents about the change in the ratio from 4.1 to 5.1 staff, which is going ahead despite all the evidence that this will cause retention to deteriorate further? Why, in the spring, did the Government not consult or even inform the sector regarding the planned expansion before it was announced? It read about it in the newspaper.

Why have the Government rejected Select Committee’s arguments on the need for sustainability by rejecting recommendations on the right rate of funding for all ages and the abolition of business rates? This is a unique sector with a unique national public service to offer, and it would make a massive difference if business rates were removed. Is the Minister prepared to meet with the Early Education and Childcare Coalition and the Early Years Alliance to listen to their shared concerns?

There is no need to rehearse the importance of early learning: we have decades of evidence on how and why these years have the most profound impact on what people make of their lives—speech and language, curiosity, relationships and behaviour. A threadbare, uncertain and stressful environment holds every child back. These are the same children who suffered so badly by being locked out because of Covid, and whose parents could not provide the books, the companionship, the conversation, the outdoor play, the stimulation.

The evidence is piling up. Ofsted has charted the continuing impact on child development, such as language and learning loss, and more children needing specialist help and waiting longer. The Education Policy Institute has said that according to the evidence, the disadvantage gap between poor children and the rest, which has been much reduced over the past decade, has been “reversed”. In June this year, the Public Accounts Committee noted in relation to older children that Covid had wiped out a “decade of progress” in reducing the attainment gap. This is really serious. The Children’s Commissioner told the Covid inquiry that children and the child’s perspective were entirely left out of Covid planning. It is worth reading all 130 pages of her evidence.

One of the most conspicuous failures has been not following the powerful and expert advice of Sir Kevan Collins. What was wanted for secondary and primary school children was a properly funded, coherent, active-learning programme that was not simply tutoring, but which brought enrichment, motivation and an appetite to learn. I know that because I spent much of my life in that sector.

No one in the Chamber disputes the link between children in poverty and school failure, nor how the number has grown. No one disputes that putting the childcare sector on a stable footing and making that investment work properly is as much about expanding the minds of children as it is about expanding the economy, and the care economy in particular, which underpins it all. It is about ensuring that the future is in safe, intelligent and courageous hands.

This why the current situation is so profoundly frustrating and dispiriting, and I have some sympathy with Ministers in this respect. We seem to have ended up with a Treasury model focused on childcare, not children. Children are invisible and their value is commodified into the cost of places, rather than optimising the benefits to them. Although the additional funding this spring and the announcement yesterday are of course welcome, they do not put right the profound structural problems that will make it so difficult to deliver this policy, which we all want to see—indeed, they could make it worse.

If the evidence in the next few months shows that there is an issue with delivery, I urge the Government to listen to what the sector tells them and not to short-change providers, parents and children. We need to assert that every child matters, and we need to see this at the centre of every government policy, in bold caps. Otherwise, after years of failing to provide, this will be the generation that was promised more but given less.

My Lords, last week I introduced a debate on the impact of edtech on the learning, social development and privacy of children, and more than one noble Lord stood up and said that they were an expert not on tech but on education. So, this afternoon, I hope noble Lords will bear with me because I am standing up and saying that I am not an expert in education but rather in tech, and it is from that perspective that I will make my contribution.

I declare my interests as in the register, specifically as adviser to the AI Institute in Oxford and fellow of the computer department there, and chair of the Digital Futures for Children Centre at the LSE, and of the 5Rights Foundation.

Technology is neither the enemy nor the salvation of the education sector, whether for school age or early-years children. It has magical qualities of interactivity, transporting children to places and spaces they would otherwise not experience. It has the benefit of consistency and predictability, so a good programme or experience can be reproduced an infinite number of times. Technology is multifaceted: it contributes to complex management systems, delivery of services, learning products, devices, safety tech—and, of course, that includes technology that we consider part of the fabric of a child’s life, from TV to radio to talking toys. I want to make it clear at the outset that it is not technology itself but rather the gaps between how it is being sold, used and governed that I seek to highlight.

In June 2022, Nesta, as part of its mission to close the gaps in school readiness, undertook to see whether it could harness the trend of increasing screentime to narrow the gap in language, maths and literacy experienced by children from low-income households. The Nesta report is relentlessly optimistic in assuming a positive role for digital tech, yet the first three of its four key findings were that it is imperative to improve the quality of toddler tech, so it delivers greater benefit for children’s social, emotional and cognitive development; to help parents navigate a crowded market, so it is easier to identify apps worth their children’s time; and to make high-quality content freely available to low-income families. This third recommendation came on the back of the finding that 88% of toddler apps had in-app advertising, 70% had in-app purchases, meaning that you had to pay to progress in a puzzle or a task, and 58% of all of them had low-quality or no educational value at all. The fourth and final recommendation was a call for further research on how technology could boost children’s outcomes.

The Nesta report is worth a read because, even in this refreshingly pro-tech report, the lack of quality in learning and developmental outcomes for children was stark, as was the shameless creation of an advertising market targeted at the under-fives.

I was disturbed to discover that several colleagues recently suggested that there was an outpouring of research showing that early-years development was increasingly inhibited or stalled because of screen use. I asked Children and Screens, at the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development in the United States, to share its evidence of tech impact on early years. With something of a spoiler alert, I shall read the conclusion:

“High-quality, age-appropriate educational content can have positive impacts on learning and socioemotional development—but not over and above the effects of traditional learning or interpersonal interactions. There is little research that technology is particularly beneficial for educational outcomes, and screen time (particularly TV and video games) relates to poorer academic performance. Technology can increase access to education (eg remote learning), but rarely if ever improves upon traditional learning in its current uses. In the meantime, excessive screen time and online interactions, without proper safety precautions and literacy, can expose children to harm”.

In the detail of its findings, the institute provided research from around the world showing that more screen use is related to lower scores on language and literacy development; that higher passive screen time— “passive” is the key word in that sentence—relates to worse working memory; and that passive screentime in the first five years of life correlates with problems with attention and concentration, learning rules, cognitive flexibility and hyperactivity. There is also a whole set of other problems if what they are watching is age-inappropriate.

There is a worry that screen time is currently, and increasingly, displacing peer play in one to three year-olds, resulting in poorer social development. There is a problem with the quality of what children are seeing or doing, whether they are doing it alone or with a carer, and the opportunity cost—that is, what they are not doing while they are looking at the screen. There is also a problem of widespread privacy and safety concerns in an entirely unregulated market. Then there is the problem of the Government’s response, because while the Government have taken a robust view of the need to regulate tech, particularly in relation to children, they have consistently exempted educational settings, creating a bizarre situation where a child’s privacy and safety protections are worse in education and care settings than they are outside. Leaving tech outside any formal oversight has resulted in the free flow of products and services that claim to be educational but have no right or reason to be considered educational and are gathering children’s personal data at an alarming rate.

While the age appropriate design code brought forward in the Data Protection Act 2018, started in this very Chamber, brought in wide-ranging design changes to tech platforms to protect children’s privacy, an exemption is made for schools and education settings. In many cases, edtech providers do not have to provide the high bar of privacy by design afforded by the AADC, the impact of which I set out last week in debate and can be found in Hansard. In short, there is an eyewatering flood of children’s personal and intimate data straight into the commercial sector.

Similarly, however much I welcome the Online Safety Act, it states:

“A user-to-user service or a search service is exempt if … the provider of the service is … the person with legal responsibility for education or childcare … a person who is employed or engaged to provide education or childcare”

or if

“the service is provided for the purposes of that education or childcare”.

The true impact of this exemption will not be fully understood until we see the detail of Ofcom’s children’s code, but I believe that it will result in some rather contradictory outcomes in which tech providers have fewer duties to children in education and childcare settings than when they access the same or similar services from a bus.

Turning to the need for standards and certification of the tech itself, I want to briefly mention, as I did last week, the work of Dr Laura Outhwaite, a researcher from UCL, who while looking at maths apps for under-fives found that of the top 25 only one had been peer reviewed, half did not meet good practice of learning support and six had no maths content at all.

There is a consensus across many studies and academics that edtech that is worth a child’s time needs four things. It needs to promote active learning, which means activating mental activity on the child’s part and not just clicking or swiping. It needs to consist of learning material, which means engaging with, rather than distracting from, the learning goal—that is, it needs to not include advertising, mini-games or other things that distract and collect data. It needs to be meaningful and relatable, which means providing scaffolding from what children already know or can relate to to support new learning. It needs to include social interaction. That is key, since passive watching has significantly poorer outcomes, so it should encourage interpersonal interaction and use parasocial relationships rather than encouraging exclusively solo play. In addition to those four requirements, children at schools and in early years provision should be afforded privacy and safety equal to or greater than that afforded in other settings.

On the idea that the provision of, and compliance with, safeguarding standards that are routinely delivered by school and carers is equal to the ICO, Ofcom or an edtech standards and certification body—which currently does not exist but is sorely needed—I ask noble Lords to imagine why we expect a nursery teacher to check the privacy or security of an app. Why is it okay for a company to provide a sales pitch to a teacher or a school leader that fails to mention that there is no, or poor, educational benefit, as is found in 58% of edtech?

That rather disheartening list should be seen in the context that high-quality digital media that encourages engagement and conversation can inspire and educate even the youngest child, which means that the quality and format of what children are given matter, in many cases just as much as the amount of time they are doing it and whether they are using tech in a shared context with truly interested and focused adult engagement. Although it remains the view of paediatric associations both here and in the US that under-twos should have no screen time other than for video calling, there are real opportunities that we are missing because of the poor oversight and wrongheaded view that schools and early years safeguarding adequately covers tech from a regulatory point of view. At the same time, we provide no standards for the tech itself.

I want to associate myself with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and add to her concerns that where money is an issue, tech is often considered to be the answer. I urge all noble Lords to take seriously the role of tech in this situation.

I have been raising these issues for some time with Ministers, regulators and in debates about technology, and I hope that in joining with those of you who are experts in education, we can focus on something which I believe to be, at best, a terrible oversight and, at worst, a failure to respond to a known harm, or a series of known harms, and that together we can address these issues across disciplines.

Before I sit down, I have a couple to questions for the Minister, some of which will be familiar to her. Does she agree that it would benefit children, parents, teachers and carers if there were a system of certification and quality control across the edtech sector, and that the privacy of children in school, where data shared is both sensitive and compulsory to provide, is an urgent matter and should be covered by the upcoming data protection Bill? That would be a useful conversation between the education department and DSIT. Will the Minister agree to ask officials to consider formally how the decision to exempt from the Online Safety Act schools and early learning might impact children in education and childcare settings? I look forward to her response.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Andrews for bringing this crucial topic to the House. It is vital that this Government think seriously about early education and implement strategies to mitigate the awful reductions in education attainment across the whole spectrum of school age groups, made significantly worse since the Covid-19 pandemic.

We all know that a child, even before it is born, can feel a whole lot of aspects that are going on through its mother’s womb, including violence and calmness. So when the child is born, it is absolutely vital that it starts to have early education, including in the home. That is why Sure Start projects should be reinstated, so that mothers, fathers or carers can take children to groups to start them being social at a very early age and so that they learn to share, talk and behave and learn all the aspects that my noble friend spoke about earlier through apps and so on. I am very pleased about her lecture; I will send it on to others, as many parents and care workers need to know about that. I thank her so much.

Why are early years important? When discussing childhood education, preschool often gets relegated to the sidelines, as if it were somehow of secondary importance compared with primary and secondary schooling. Pre-education gives the ground rules and start to every child. We like to say that every child is born equal, but if they are not having preschool and that sort of help in the home and outside, they will be losing already. If we look at how children develop—and, importantly, when they develop—we may become inclined to pay a little more attention to this overlooked phase of our children’s development journey.

The simple fact is that early years education tremendously impacts on lifelong achievements. The majority of all development occurs during the very first years in this world, and 85% of our language is cemented before the age of five. I can tell that with young children around me. That is even more so these days, when it is even quicker; for some reason, they grasp things much faster. Between the ages of 18 months and five years, a child goes from knowing approximately 50 words to using around 2,000 and understanding some 5,000 more. This kind of rapid development happens at no other time during our lives, and the same pattern of booming cognitive ability happens in other areas, too, including physical, psycho-emotional and cognitive ability. All these skills are the foundations that later learning and development are built on. That is why we have to invest more. If a child has encountered disadvantages during this time, this has already had an effect.

According to the Times Education Commission,

“40 per cent of the attainment gap that can be seen at the age of 16 is already in place before those children even start school”.

So a bad start at an early age can never be made up; we know that education cannot be made up for those children who start school as late as five. The commission states:

“A child’s development score as young at 22 months is”


“predictor of where they will be educationally at the age of 26”.

That is very frightening, but we know that it is the truth.

Often, the entire process has occurred before a child has encountered a teacher. The importance of properly funded, well-trained and well-staffed preschool education has gone entirely amiss under this Government. The decision to increase staff-to-child ratios in early years settings sends a clear signal, because children need people to look after them. You cannot increase how many children the teacher or carer will look after; we should decrease the number of children they have to look after, so that the children can get much more attention. This is sending a clear signal that, instead of giving the sector the much-needed investment it needs, they would rather lower the standards of care available—at the moment of a child’s life that is arguably the most important.

Another important issue with going to childcare or nursery schools is food. We know that a child and its brain cannot function without food—we have to understand this. It is vital that we provide more breakfast clubs, so that children get food when they go to nursery. Those who cannot afford that should be given free food. Also, we should have free school meals, including during the holidays, which is a very difficult time. This will affect the generations to come and we will not be a country that is fast flowing if we do not invest in our young people from the very beginning.

These decisions on the quality of preschool education affect not only the child’s attainment but the economy and our society at large. The Times estimated that, for every £1 spent on early education, £13 would be saved later. That is not a lot of money when added up over a long time. The money will be saved later in a child’s life in education, catch-up interventions and, more importantly, mental health and health. Research from the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education project showed that children who attend preschool have better education and social outcomes at the end of primary and secondary education, and have higher GCSE scores and the potential for higher earnings.

I come to Covid and post-pandemic changes to early years education. For children, we can even say that the pandemic is not fully over. They continue to be impacted by the effects of lockdown measures, and it is still difficult to ascertain just how harmful the pandemic period has been on their development. That applies in particular to those who were locked in high-rise flats with nowhere to turn, who had balconies but could not go out on them because it was unsafe and who received no education, with no way of ascertaining anything with regard to preschool.

During the first national lockdown, early years settings experienced partial closures, permitting only children of key workers and those considered vulnerable. Who decides whether a child is vulnerable? A child can be vulnerable in a rich family or a poor family—all sorts of factors determine that decision. Despite subsequent lockdowns allowing preschools to remain open in many circumstances, statistics released by the Department for Education in December 2021 highlighted that attendance levels had not reverted to their pre-pandemic status. We see that today with children who are not attending school, and the numbers of those who are not attending preschool are even worse. Parents are keeping children at home because of costs, but that is damaging that child beyond damage. Consequent numbers of children have missed out on valuable guidance from early years practitioners.

Families continue to grapple with the challenge of balancing childcare alongside remote work, health concerns and the cost of living crisis, which has meant that many cannot afford full-time preschool. That is why we have to have nursery schools attached to schools; regardless of the cost, this is vital to the country. Additionally, a report from the Children’s Commissioner has revealed that a substantial number of children endured adverse circumstances during lockdown, including experiences of poverty, exposure to domestic violence, parental mental health challenges, instances of parental abuse and even more violence.

Early years education needs to be taken as seriously and given as much time and attention as primary and secondary education. The early years education system needs reform, and quickly, if barriers to entry are going to be broken, especially if they exist alongside the wealth divide. We must place more nurseries in primary schools and integrate early years into the more formal education sector. This would not only help bring down costs for parents of young children and babies but would also help to standardise and improve the levels of care and education delivered at a young age.

Early years educators should be on the same pay scale as primary educators, and more teaching graduates need to be brought into the profession and encouraged. Our early years facilities are closing down at alarming rates, and educators are leaving the field en masse. Much of this issue stems from early years underfunding and undercaring, and the idea that this area does not matter, and children can go to school at five but not before—that is it. The Government, and any Government after them, must put investment in the early years education sector central to any long-term strategy for education.

I will say a word about families and children of refugees in this country. Many families have come to this country not as refugees but sometimes because they have been displaced by war or climate change. Those children should be in school and should have the advantage of preschool as well; over the years they have and they have not. These are the future generations and it is about our soft power; they may decide to stay here or to go elsewhere, but we need to take care of those families properly because they will be our partners as the world goes further.

I come back to say that, when you are thinking about moving refugee families, think about the children’s education, including their preschool education, and their health. That is vital; otherwise, it will cost those families, the country and the world much more. We should take that more into consideration when we are moving children of refugees abruptly.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, and to share her passionate concern about the level of inequality that affects children’s start in life and therefore affects people throughout their lives.

I have been enjoying taking part in this debate and am particularly glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, brought her expertise to this afternoon’s session. I was particularly interested in her focus on advertising built into apps, built into systems where parents feel as if they are doing the right thing by exposing their children to them. It is the Green Party’s policy to ban all advertising targeted at children of primary school age or under, because there is psychological evidence that shows that children are unable to distinguish between editorial content and advertising content—where, indeed, there is a difference between those two. I understand that it may not be in her brief, but I ask the Minister later, if possible, to say what actions the Government plan to crack down on advertising aimed at a vulnerable population with no way of understanding that what has been targeted at it is advertising.

I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for giving us the opportunity for this debate and for introducing it so powerfully. I have crossed out quite a number of things in my speech in an attempt not to repeat but rather to add to what has been said in this debate. I note that for the second debate in a row, there are no Tory Back-Bench speakers. I have to draw the contrast between this debate and yesterday’s debate on the Autumn Statement, where we saw a large number of speakers with a very different gender balance. I urge those who participated in yesterday’s debate, if they read the Hansard of this debate, to think about the fact that if they will not think or care about early childhood education for other reasons, they should at least acknowledge this is the foundation of our economy. In yesterday’s debate, we were—as we are practically every day in the House—lamenting the terrible level of productivity in the UK. Where is the foundation of that? With our inadequate early years provision. If you will not care about it for other reasons, please think about caring about it for that great god of the economy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, in setting up this debate, focused on the impact of Covid, and we have already heard very powerful testimony about that, but it has exacerbated problems right through our education system from early years onwards. Of course, when children leave the early years system, they go immediately to baseline testing. Then, in primary schools they have SATs and all the pressure, worry and concern that they raise. Our whole education system is focused on teaching to the test, treating children like an empty vessel into which a whole lot of information is poured. They are shaped into a work-ready form. I go back to 2013 and the then Childcare Minister, Liz Truss—you might remember her. Liz Truss, having, in her position as Minister, toured a number of early years settings, said:

“I have seen too many chaotic settings, where children are running around. There’s no sense of purpose”.

I ask the Minister if that still reflects the philosophy and approach of the Government.

As an alternative approach that I think the Government should be taking, I will point her towards the work of Paul Ramchandani, the world’s first Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning, who is based at the University of Cambridge. I encourage the department to look at the professor’s work, which very much focuses in the early years setting on the fact that that play is fundamental for children to learn and develop. For younger children, that is where they learn to communicate, to share, to interact with other children and to manage their emotions when things do not work out. There is an excellent article in the Times Education Supplement covering this much more broadly than I have time to today. Does the Minister agree that early years education has to be focused on the development of the whole child, rather than making them school-ready in the narrow Liz Truss sense?

In addressing this debate, I have three sections: philosophy, staff and some inequality points, building on the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie.

One of the things to think about in the Green Party philosophy is that early years education should go on for longer. In many countries, academic learning is not introduced until the age of seven. These early years should be regarded as a unique educational stage in their own right, not just as preparation for school. Here is one of the practical realities that we see: I am sure that many of the noble Lords taking part in this debate are regularly contacted by parents who are concerned about their child being the youngest in the year and struggling developmentally to keep up with children who are almost a year older than them. We need to recognise the variance in children’s development and give them the chance to develop in that early years setting, which should—indeed, can—be much more flexible and adaptable than a school setting could ever possibly be.

We think that we should see a movement towards the early years going on for longer. One thing that is really important, but which much of our early years provision does not currently enable, is regular access to outdoor green spaces and nature. We are very much aware of the fact that this has both educational and health benefits. We now understand that the human microbiome is crucial to our well-being. Being in natural environments, for example playing in the mud, has all kinds of health benefits to which, sadly, many of our young children simply do not have access either in their early years setting or in their home environment. The science shows us that the benefits are huge. I do not know whether the Minister can offer me any hope that the Government acknowledge the importance of that exposure to the natural world—that is, physically being in the natural world. Can she say whether the Government have any plans to increase that opportunity?

I come to staffing, which the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, has already covered quite a bit; I will lean heavily here on the Early Education and Childcare Coalition’s report, prepared with the Women’s Budget Group. The Government are talking; I welcome them saying, “We need to expand early years provision and improve the quality”. However, the coalition’s figures show that 57% of nursery staff are planning to leave their jobs in the next year, while two-thirds of nurseries are already reporting an average waiting time of six months for a place. We have a long-term situation where car mechanics are generally paid far more than childcare workers. This is an old feminist commentary on the gendered nature of those two roles, of course, but we have to acknowledge that this issue is crucial for all our futures. We need to value our workers.

Some of the practical recommendations from the coalition are really worth focusing on; they are not necessarily enormously expensive. They include having a career development hub at the Department for Education, because one thing that this study and others have very much focused on is the fact that there is not really any way for people to develop their skills practically. Nurseries are often understaffed and struggle to keep up with the legislative requirements on staffing levels. Their ability to have time for staff to go away for training and further development just is not there. What is also crucial—I will come back to this—is the need for more special educational needs training so that we can meet the increasing demands for special educational needs provision in early years education.

Further to that point about allowing staff to go away for training, the report recommends a system of having bank staff at the local authority level to enable staff to take time out for training. This would mean that staff could do so without any negative implications for their employer. There is also the experts and mentoring scheme for childminders. Do the Government plan for that to become a permanent programme?

I will finish with a point that I have raised before with the Minister and cannot avoid raising in this context, as we are focusing so broadly on the early years sector—the rising number of hedge funds and those in the financial sector investing in it. These people are not running nurseries because they are passionate about children’s development or because they really want to make a difference. By definition, they are there to make a profit. There are now 81,500 childcare places in England owned by investment funds and similar organisations. That is almost double the total in 2018.

A report from UCL academics last year said that these are very risky financial models, heavily indebted and at real risk of collapse—as we have seen in the care home sector. I put this on the record because I suspect that many parents do not realise the role of the financial sector in their provision. We all know how desperately parents have to hunt around for a place and then grab what they can, but I wonder whether they know that Busy Bees Nurseries is owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. Kids Planet is owned by the private equity firm Fremman Capital, which has recently been on a large buying spree of expansion. The Dutch private equity firm Waterland recently acquired Partou. The London-based Oakley Capital owns what it renamed the Bright Stars Nursery Group, which is one of the fastest growing.

We are talking about something fundamental. We are talking about the future—and we are not doing very well.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. What a fascinating and wide-ranging debate this has proved to be. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Andrews for securing the debate and for the excellent way in which she introduced it. I note that I am the first male to speak. I spoke to her about whether I should put my name down as I thought I would be rather wide of the mark, but as I listened to the contributions, particularly from my noble friend Lady Goudie on free school meals, I recognised that, rather like the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, while I am not an expert on education I have spent a bit of time working on health.

When we look at the totality of what influences babies and children in their early years and children early on in school, all these important factors come together—media, the environment, what we eat and do not eat, what we are taught. My contribution will, I am sure, make the Minister groan, as we have been on the subject as recently as two weeks ago: what we feed our children and what we do not feed our children but should. I declare an interest as a founding member of the All-Party Group on Nutrition: Science and Health and as a vice-chair of the All-Party Group on Obesity. In recent years I have increasingly spent more time on children and obesity than on adult obesity.

Labour has an extraordinarily good record. We should keep saying this over the coming months. Back at the turn of the century, the Labour Government then in power started to get concerned about the growth in obesity among schoolchildren and babies. There was a programme on the radio today about babies’ food. One of the big issues is the amount of sugar that we are feeding to babies, unbeknown to many parents as they feed their children. I declare my interest as a patron of a small charity, Sugarwise, which was founded by a woman who happened to look at the ingredients in what she was feeding her baby. She was astounded by the high element of sugar that her child was being fed, which she believed had an influence. It continues and there is a very big case for further work to be done on babies’ food, but today I am looking at schoolchildren.

The Labour Government were concerned about children aged three to four, and upwards, that were starting to put on weight. In 2006, after doing some research, they introduced the national child measurement programme to check the height and weight of most schoolchildren from age four to five and 10 and 11. It has now also gone into school breakfasts. The aim was to track the changes that were taking place with children’s height and weight, to assess whether they were overweight and if they were then to try to take measures in conjunction with local schools and parents to try to reverse the growth in obesity. In 2007, they turned their attention to school meals because they recognised that, if they were to influence the course of events on health, this was the area where they had the greatest scope. They examined the quality of school meals and then in 2008 devised a programme to produce a set of regulations on the quality of school meals being presented to our children. Unfortunately, we went out of power in 2010, but that was a very ambitious and comprehensive programme. What a great pity that we were not able to stay in power and enforce those regulations properly, as we would not be facing the problems we now have with our young children.

In 2013, the coalition Government decided to do a review of those regulations governing the quality of school meals, and they changed them. There was concern about insufficient energy in the definitions, so they eased the rules—believe it or not—so that it was possible to increase the amount of sugar in the meals. The Front Bench of the Lib Dems have some responsibility for this, as they were then part of the coalition. I do not know whether they agreed with what was happening in the coalition Government’s internal debates, but they were certainly part of it. Public Health England started getting worried in 2016 about the continued growth in obesity, and it set up a programme aiming to reduce it by 20% in children by 2020. There was then an intention by the Conservative Government to undertake a review of those regulations in 2018-19, but then—in fairness to them—Covid hit us, and they have not had the opportunity to do so.

We have reached a stage where children are continuing to put on weight. Not only that, but we are now starting to identify children aged 10 to 11 with type 2 diabetes. These are people who will have their lives shortened. If this cannot be reversed, they will have attendant problems with ill health in their 40s and 50s, and possibly even end up with amputations taking place. The Government have responsibility in these areas. People like me have been pressing them to undertake this review of the regulations and reduce the amount of sugar that is now permitted to be served to children, early in school as well as at breakfasts, back to at least the level applied by the regulations introduced by the good Labour Government in 2007-08.

My colleagues here, whom I hope will be going into government, should take note of this. They should congratulate the former Labour Government for what they did on this and we should pick that up and run with it. If the present Government are not prepared to undertake a review of these regulations governing food, the Labour Government in their manifesto should at least be willing to commit to look at the quality of school meals, seek to improve it and reduce the amount of sugar in them.

I pressed the Minister two weeks ago to do that, on the basis of the good messages I heard from her side, her Front Bench and her health spokesperson, and in writing. I thought that there would be a review this autumn, yet I regret that, when the noble Baroness responded two weeks ago, she gave no indication at all that that would happen. I hope the Minister will reflect on that in the light of this House’s decision to set up a special committee to look at ultra-processed food, sugar, fat and salt. That group will be doing that work over the coming year and I hope that I might be a member, as I would press, as your Lordships might expect, that it looks especially at what happens to children. As we have said in so many other areas, what happens in their early years governs their development for the rest of their lives. Without good health, we do not get good education and all that goes with it.

I hope the Minister reflects on whether to do this review, because it is urgently needed. This is not a party-political issue: children are entitled to better food than they are getting at the moment. The Minister may say that it is healthy and nutritious. I think it probably is nutritious, but whether it is healthy is highly questionable, given the amount of sugar that is now going in. I have even been getting complaints from people who produce school meals that they are unhappy about what they have to produce and serve because, with the cost pressures now on them, they feel that they are not able to make the best possible food for children. I hope the Minister reflects on that and maybe redeems the Government by putting in place the review earlier than she had indicated last time we spoke about this.

My Lords, I reflect on how it was the coalition Government, pushed strongly by their Liberal Democrat element, who brought in free school meals for all key stage 2 pupils.

I remember that my first education essay was on the importance of play—I think I still have a copy of it somewhere—and my second was on good toilet training. That is something on which we can all reflect.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for initiating this debate and for her important and well-measured speech. Anybody who watched BBC’s main news last night will have seen vividly the effects of the Covid lockdown on three very young children. Their speech, after intensive speech therapy, is only now beginning to develop.

I hope we all know about the importance of early years provision. However, it is too often framed by the needs of working parents, with political parties trying to outbid each other on the number of hours offered, rather than looking at the quality and importance to the development of the child. Early years provision provides the hugely important benefit of social interaction with other children of a similar age—making friends and learning to establish connections, learning to share, taking turns, listening to others, playing together with other children as well as independently, learning from peers, copying and helping each other. I was quite right about the importance of play. Developing communication skills which will increase their vocabulary and language through a wide range of different situations, learning how to communicate their feelings and opinions, and interacting with peers and adults other than just their parents are vital parts of their development.

Playing with other children also provides an ideal opportunity for them to gain a greater understanding of other people’s feelings—empathy—and increase their own independence and confidence. That added independence can nurture a child’s self-confidence; help to develop their own personality, disposition, thoughts and ideas; and encourage a child to discover more and more about themselves. Learning basic tasks by themselves, taking part in activities and spending time with others develops their confidence and builds a foundation that prepares them not only for school but the outside world.

Early years education is a springboard to learn new skills academically, socially and emotionally. The child will learn new life skills every day, from putting on a raincoat to mathematical concepts, which are valuable to build future foundations. Early years provides routine and structure to a child’s day, including mealtimes, naps, and indoor and outdoor activities. The routine of early years provision helps the child feel more confident, secure and in control of their feelings. Knowing what to expect and when enables a child to play more of an active role in tasks.

Every parent hopes that their child will develop to their full potential, and this is enshrined in Article 6 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, across England, a significant number of children are not developing the competencies and abilities that they need to start off their lives. At the start of 2022, 154,689 children were missing out on their entitlement. Half of disadvantaged pupils were found to not be at their expected level of development. Good-quality provision is vital for children’s development, equipping them with the foundational physical, cognitive, social and emotional skills needed to be successful in adolescence and adulthood.

I turn to mental health services in early years. I remind the House that, in January, it will be five years since the Government published the NHS Long Term Plan, which promised that mental health services would be comprehensive in covering children aged nought to 19. However, five years on, it is clear that mental health support is coming too late, and the services that support vulnerable babies and toddlers are few and far between. There is, in effect, a baby blind spot. A baby’s early experiences shape their brain development, so getting help early is the key to preventing mental health disorders in children.

In January 2019, the NHS Long Term Plan promised that at least 66,000 women with moderate to severe perinatal mental health difficulties would have access to specialist community care from pre-conception to 24 months after birth. Does the Minister not agree that it is time to set an equivalent target for the next five years, which will drive and increase services that help vulnerable babies and toddlers? The Government have recognised the need, and they estimate in their Start for Life initiative that 10% of babies are at risk. The Parent-Infant Foundation was among those organisations calling on the Government to set a target for the NHS to support 60,000 vulnerable babies over the next five years who are at risk of developing mental health conditions in childhood.

It always surprises me that, in education, the older you get the more money is spent on you: a sixth-former gets more money than a 12 year-old or 13 year-old, who gets more money than a seven year-old or eight year-old, and a preschool or nursery child gets the least amount of money. That is unbelievable. This is the time of their development, and shapes what they will be like as adults. Yet we as a society—in all political parties; this is not an attack on the Government—have an educational view that the younger you are, the fewer resources and less money you need.

Early years is the most important stage in a child’s life, yet do we invest in quality provision? Do we ensure that staff are well trained and well rewarded, so we attract the best possible people? Do we ensure that there is regular updating of their skills and knowledge? Why do we not have a qualified nursery teacher as head of every early years provision and setting? Here is a radical thought: given that the very life opportunities and rounded development of the child start in early years, should we not consider making early years a statutory/compulsory part of education?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Andrews for securing this debate. It has been very interesting and varied, with considerable consensus on the need to provide children the best start in life. I declare an interest as London’s deputy mayor for fire and resilience, as I will refer to the problems in securing childcare faced by shift workers, including firefighters, later on in the debate.

However, before I speak on the subject being debated today, I would like to pay tribute to Alistair Darling. There can be few politicians who have contributed so much to this country, both in his leadership in his roles in government and in his leadership in keeping the union intact. I did not have the close friendship with him of so many noble Lords, but unlike many Members I had the privilege of voting for him, in 1997 when I lived in his constituency. I know the thoughts of all noble Lords will be with his family at today’s deeply shocking and sad news.

My noble friend Lady Andrews gave a stark picture of the issues within the early years sector, with areas of deprivation seeing higher loss of provision, to providers simply not being able to take on more government-funded free hours. As highlighted by my noble friend Lady Goudie, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the pandemic has impacted the social, physical and communicational development of children. There has to be a focus on how to address this, otherwise a bad situation will continue to get worse and potentially blight the lives of children in this country, both now and throughout their lives.

I welcome the fact that so many speakers today have focused on the child. As my noble friend Lady Andrews has said, the child needs to be at the front and centre in how we plan for and deliver early years education provision and environments. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, spoke about what is required to make edtech work for this age group. My noble friend Lady Goudie highlighted the critical skills of language that children need to develop in their early years. Speech and Language UK has identified that, since the Covid-19 lockdowns, a greater number of children face challenges talking. In September, it published a report which found that a growing number of children faced challenges talking and understanding words, from an estimated 1.5 million in 2021 to 1.9 million in 2023.

Labour will ensure that children get support in developing early communication skills, to ensure that every child develops a strong foundation in speech and language development that sets them up to achieve. Labour intends to equip every school with funding to deliver evidence-based early language interventions. For example, the Nuffield Early Language Intervention, which provides small-group language teaching sessions, has been shown to significantly improve the language skills of reception pupils, aged four and five.

I welcome the description of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, of the need and value of outdoor play, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. This and socialisation are clearly vital. The UNICEF UK briefing to Members ahead of today’s debate estimates that around 155,000 children in the UK are missing out on their entitlement to free early childhood education and care. They provided an example of a mother whose son has symptoms of autism, and on that basis had been suspended from his nursery. She was struggling to find a nursery that would accept a child with symptoms of autism but who had not had a diagnosis. For those with a diagnosis, UNICEF UK also described the situation of little support and no clear pathway for it. These are among the children with the greatest need for good early years education: those who can least afford to miss out. However, they and so many others are currently missing out.

As my noble friend Lady Goudie pointed out, it has a hugely harmful impact on all children’s attainment when they miss out on this. Can the Minister tell the House how the Government plan to address this issue, particularly in relation to children with SEN or issues that they await diagnosis on?

My noble friend Lady Andrews referred to the use of the term “fragile” by the sector to describe the precarious present and future state that many providers find themselves in. She quoted some truly shocking statistics about the state of play. The current funding model is forcing many businesses out of the market and many more out of providing free hours. The Tories’ broken hours system has relied for too long, and unofficially, on cross-subsidy, with paid hours and additional costs to parents making up the difference. This means that the Government’s welcome offer of further free hours earlier in the year simply cannot be met. Unless further action is taken, this will be yet another empty promise.

I will not repeat all the statistics used in the debate, but it is not rocket science: childcare businesses are going bust in alarming numbers because their expenses—their costs of doing business—are rising and their income is simply not matching it. Many providers that are still in business are struggling and many simply cannot afford to subsidise the Government’s free hours scheme any longer. A survey of 800 providers by the Early Years Alliance found that only one in five providers that currently offer places to two year-olds plans to deliver additional places under the expanded entitlement. Another third said that they were unsure whether they would deliver places under the new scheme.

As my noble friend Lady Andrews said in her opening remarks, Ofsted figures show that the service has shrunk from 85,000 providers to just 60,000 since 2015. There are now two children for every Ofsted-registered childcare place in England. The knock-on effect is that parents—often mothers—are coming out of the workforce to take care of their child or children. Does the Minister agree that this situation shows that the Government are failing families?

On yesterday’s announcements, the Government have clearly recognised the dire financial state of the sector. However, it is clear from the response of sector representatives that the funding falls far short of what is needed. Can the Minister tell the House what assessment of the sector’s viability and ability to deliver on the commitment of free hours the Government have made, including of the funding required? Given that the announced funding is to go to local authorities, could she tell us how much of it will go to nurseries and childminders, who the chief executive of the Early Years Alliance said yesterday were “still in the dark” as to how much they will receive? Has this now been clarified?

Another major block for delivery in the sector is recruitment and retention. This was highlighted by my noble friend Lady Andrews and others, including the critical need, which is also an ask of the Local Government Association, for a workforce plan. My noble friend mentioned that 57% of nursery staff and 38% of childminders are considering leaving the sector in the next 12 months. This is simply not sustainable.

Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will work with the sector and local government to develop an effective workforce plan focused both on drawing people into the sector and on their ongoing training and development needs, so that the quality of the provision gives children the benefits they need and deserve? If she can commit to this, would she ensure that it also covers childminders and addresses an increasing reliance on childminder agencies—a trend about which the LGA has raised concerns? Early years care will form part of Labour’s workforce strategy, which offers more opportunities through high-quality training and recognition for the skilled work of early years practitioners.

This House recently spent a lot of time discussing levelling up. Childcare and early years education have to be a major part of levelling up children’s chances in life and breaking down barriers to their success. Some small measures related to childcare were added towards the end of the levelling-up Bill’s passage through Parliament. Labour tabled an amendment to allow councils to run childcare provision themselves when they judge that it is right to do so, not simply as a last resort. I am grateful to the Minister for the Government’s concession to allow this. Will the Government now ensure that local government is encouraged, and given adequate support, to do this to anticipate the current and future needs of their local populations, rather than to try to address patchy provision when providers fail?

The ONS recently published figures for UK monthly median pay in October, putting it at £2,276. With 20 hours of childcare costing £7,000 a year on average and full-time nursery care costing an eye-watering £14,000 a year, it is simply out of many parents’ reach. It has been noted that the cost of nursery places often exceeds the amounts that a family pay on their rent or mortgage. Does the Minister agree that this situation needs to be addressed, and will she accept the need for greater reform of the sector to deliver for children, parents and providers—but particularly for children?

Labour would reform childcare and early years. We know that children who are eligible for free school meals are already five months behind their peers when they start school. We have to ensure that they do not get left behind and that all children and families get the best support, which they need so that every child has the best start in life. With this in mind, Labour has commissioned an early years review led by the respected former chief inspector of Ofsted, Sir David Bell, who will be supported by a panel of independent experts. This review will consider how to deliver new places and have a motivated, well-trained workforce to deliver high and rising standards, and more accessible childcare, under Labour.

My noble friends Lady Goudie and Lord Brooke both highlighted the importance of good food in children’s development and learning. The health elements of this are crucial and, given that my noble friend Lord Brooke recently asked the Minister about school food, I hope that she is able to respond to his questions today.

This debate is focused on children, not necessarily on women’s ability to be economically active. However, it would seem inappropriate to discuss childcare and early years education without touching on this. Women are still largely the parents who have to put their careers on hold to have a family. This issue is particularly acute for those taking on shift work with irregular hours, such as police officers, firefighters and nurses, as well as people working in the hospitality sector. In the case of emergency responders, if they are in the middle of responding to an incident, they may end up having to work additional hours on a shift with no notice. Sites such as Mumsnet have many questions about this, but few solutions are offered other than family care or a costly live-in au pair or nanny, which is out of reach for most.

As a Deputy Mayor for Fire in London, I have spoken to firefighters who are in relationships with other firefighters or emergency responders. They work different shift patterns to care for their children, thereby rarely coinciding with their partner. This is far from ideal. We need working parents to be able to juggle work and their home life. Can the Minister say what more the Government will do to support the early years sector to ensure that it can cater for parents undertaking shift work?

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the many questions posed in what has been a hugely interesting and broad-ranging debate. I end by quoting my noble friend Lady Andrews in stressing this: “Children are invisible and their value is commodified into the cost of places, rather than optimising the benefits to them”. That is the situation we appear to be in. Childcare should not be just about providing care while the parents work, even though that is important. It should be viewed as a vital step in a child’s development. Labour will work to provide higher standards for early years provision, alongside better availability and a model that works for providers.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I express my sadness at the untimely death of Lord Darling. We can have some small insight into the extraordinary pressure that he must have worked under, at a time of global financial crisis, and the calmness and judgment he brought to his role. We send our very best wishes to his family, in particular.

We have heard some powerful messages from across the Chamber today on the importance of high-quality early years education. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, very much for securing this debate and all noble Lords who have contributed to the topic. Whatever our perspectives, today’s debate has highlighted how crucial it is that we ensure all children have the best start in life. Decades of evidence, as we heard today, has shown that quality early years education has a critical positive effect on children’s outcomes, in the short and the long term. That is why the Government are committed to ensuring that every child receives high-quality education and care.

I absolutely accept that His Majesty’s Opposition are rightly there to challenge the Government’s record but, before I talk more about the Government’s policies in this area and attempt to address some of the questions raised by noble Lords, I feel it is important for the record to say that some of the remarks about how unsuccessful our education system is are very far from the truth. We have seen a significant improvement in reading and in maths. Our children aged nine and 10 are now fourth in the world and the best in the western world at reading. There has been a significant improvement in maths as well. That has been thanks to the absolute focus that this Government, and in particular my former ministerial colleague Minister Gibb, paid to this very important plank for future education. I absolutely accept the challenges posed by noble Lords, but we need to keep the record straight on the Government’s record on education.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, gently again raised the important issues of childhood obesity. I will take back his thoughts to my ministerial colleagues about the importance of a review and the work he is leading in relation to ultra-processed foods. The early years foundation stage framework requires that, where children are provided with meals, snacks or drinks in an early years setting, they need to be healthy and nutritious. We have example menus for early years settings in England and provide guidance to staff on menu planning. I hope that he takes some reassurance from the focus within early years, although I accept his concerns about the wider issues of obesity.

The quality of our early years provision was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and others. England has some of the highest-quality provision in the world, with 96% of early years settings rated good or outstanding by Ofsted as of August 2023, which is up from 74% in 2012. The early years foundation stage statutory framework sets the standards that all early years providers must follow to ensure that children have the skills and knowledge they need to thrive. In 2021, this Government reformed the early years framework more broadly to improve early years outcomes for all children, particularly disadvantaged children—noble Lords rightly raised the subject—in the critical areas that build the foundations for later success, such as mathematics, language development and literacy and, importantly, in play, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, articulated so clearly.

I am delighted to be able to tell the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that we are making great progress in encouraging children to connect with nature. We recently launched our National Education Nature Park; I can send her the link. This is providing children in every school the chance to map their school grounds and upload those digitally, so that we can build a whole digital map. There are grants for schools with very low levels of biodiversity to be able to increase biodiversity. I visited an extremely urban school in Birmingham earlier this week to see what it was doing in relation to the nature park. It is growing vegetables; it has chickens and takes the eggs from them for the breakfast club’s scrambled eggs. I know that she is not pleased with everything the Government do, but I hope that she will accept that this is a step in the right direction.

I do not necessarily expect an immediate answer, but can the Minister perhaps think about whether it is possible to extend such a programme to nursery settings?

It has already been extended to the nursery sector. We are way ahead. But this is an important point because it sets children off in the way we hope they will continue: with a love of nature but also a sense of agency within it.

I turn to concerns that noble Lords raised about the impact of Covid on children’s development. The 2022-23 early years foundation stage profile results, published by the department today, show that there has been an increase in the proportion of five year-olds achieving a good level of development compared to last year. In 2022-23, 67.2% of children had a good level of development, and 65.6% were at the expected level across all 17 early learning goals—that is up 2% on last year. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, rightly raised concerns about recovery post Covid.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for raising important issues about children and screen time. If the noble Baroness has time, I would be happy to meet her and talk about the additional security that we think the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance provides to children in education settings, although she is clearly not convinced it is achieving that. I do not think there is any difference in our aims and aspirations for the safety of children, so it would be helpful if the noble Baroness would agree to explore that in more detail. I absolutely agree with her about the importance of the privacy of children’s data.

I turn to the expansion in provision. We are determined to support as many families as possible with access to high-quality and affordable childcare. A number of noble Lords remarked on a focus on encouraging people—principally women—back into the workplace, which is an important goal for all the reasons that the House will be aware of. However, it is in no way a compromise on the quality and richness and developmental value that the noble Baroness opposite set out so clearly in her remarks.

By 2027-28, we expect to be spending in excess of £8 billion each year on free childcare. The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, cited the current costs of childcare, which make the case eloquently for the changes that we are bringing in, because we understand that they are a tremendous pressure on those who have very young children and wish to go out to work. This huge expansion means that millions of children will benefit from the extraordinary efforts of the sector to give children the safest and highest-quality early education and childcare. As a first stage in growing and supporting the early years workforce to deliver these entitlements, the Government consulted on a number of further flexibilities to the early years foundation stage this year, which will be implemented from January 2024, so that providers can use their existing workforce better while protecting quality and safety.

The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, asked why the Government did not consult on the planned expansion. The Spring Budget announcement responded to the concerns aired and raised by parents about the cost of childcare. Since then, the noble Baroness will be aware that we have consulted on key factors of the rollout, including funding and other changes.

The quality of our early years and childcare sector is a testament to the ongoing dedication and hard work of those in the profession. Since the pandemic, the Government have committed up to £180 million of support to promote quality and best practice and provide staff with opportunities for career progression, as we heard from a number of speakers this evening. This includes a package of training, qualifications and guidance for the workforce. We have expanded the early years professional development programme to enable up to 10,000 more level 3 qualified early years practitioners to access the latest teaching in communication and language, early mathematics and personal, social and emotional development. We are also funding the national professional qualification in early years leadership, which is designed to support early years leaders to develop expertise in leading high-quality education and care, as well as effective staff and organisational management.

In addition, we are proud to say that over two-thirds of primary schools have benefited from our investment in the Nuffield early language intervention, improving the speech and language skills of over 160,000 children in reception classes so far. More than 500,000 primary school children have been screened to identify those with language development difficulties, which we know can be such a blocker for their future education.

The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, asked whether the department had made an estimate of the dead weight in our expansion. There will be a full evaluation of the rollout, which will also look at that issue.

To return to the workforce issues, which were raised again by the noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews and Lady Twycross, and other noble Lords, to support providers to recruit the staff they need to deliver the expansion in childcare entitlements announced at the Spring Budget, we are developing a range of new workforce initiatives, including the launch of a national recruitment campaign, planned for the beginning of 2024, to boost interest in the sector and support the recruitment of talented staff. We are removing barriers to entering the workforce by ensuring that qualifications are suitable and easy to understand. This includes launching a competition to find providers of early years skills boot camps, which will include a pathway to an accelerated level 3 early years apprenticeship. We are also developing new degree apprenticeship routes so that everyone, from junior staff to senior leaders, can easily move into a career in the sector.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews and Lady Goudie, challenged on whether the change in the staff-to-child ratio would make it harder to retain staff. As the House knows, we are providing flexibility to providers to move from a 4:1 to a 5:1 ratio, in line with that which exists in Scotland. However, ultimately, it is the managers of settings who know what support their children need, and they will know their staff best. The Government trust their judgment as to what ratios they believe are right for them in their settings. Supporting the workforce is obviously a priority, which is why we provided £204 million of additional funding to local authorities, so that providers can recruit and retain the staff that they need.

The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, raised a very troubling case, if I understood rightly, of a child on the autism spectrum who was suspended from nursery school, which slightly defies one’s imagination. We do recognise that quality early years education means meeting the needs of all children, which of course critically includes those with special educational needs and disabilities. The House knows very well the importance of those needs being identified as early as possible, as emphasised in the SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan, which we published in March this year.

We are funding the training of up to 7,000 early years special educational needs co-ordinators, and there is also SEND-focused content in the package of support and guidance for the workforce which I outlined earlier. We are also reviewing the operation of SEND inclusion funds within the current early years funding system to ensure that funding arrangements are both appropriate and really well-targeted to improve outcomes for preschool children with special educational needs.

To finish, I want to touch on an important point that was raised in the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, today; that quality early years education is provided not only in nurseries, childminder settings and schools but also, of course, at home. We know that a stable and stimulating home learning environment is also crucial to children’s development. That is why we secured £28.7 million between now and 2025 for local authorities to support specifically the speech and language of young children who were worst affected by the pandemic, namely today’s three and four year-olds. That programme is being delivered through family hubs and the Start for Life programme. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, raised the importance of parenting and children having a routine, which clearly family hubs are part of delivering.

The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, mentioned the return of Sure Start. As I think she will be aware, we believe that our family hubs really build on the learnings from Sure Start and from children’s centres and are a single place where a family can access all the support they need, including support for mothers with mental health issues, which noble Lords also raised.

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, invited me to meet the Early Education and Childcare Coalition and the Early Years Alliance. She may be aware that the department meets both groups very regularly and I know that the Minister for Children and Families has also met them. I would be delighted to as well, if the noble Baroness would find it useful. She also asked whether we hold data on children whose families are in receipt of universal credit. That is held by the Department for Work and Pensions, but I am happy to write if that data is available. I close by thanking your Lordships—

Before the Minister sits down, I raised the issue of a new target for the 60,000 vulnerable babies and asked what the Government are planning to do on that. Will she write to me about it, as it is an NHS matter?

I would be delighted to write about that and all the other issues that I have not had time to cover this evening.

I close by thanking your Lordships for their thoughtful contributions to the debate today and to underline our shared gratitude to early years professionals who are doing such a fantastic job to deliver high-quality education to our youngest children.

My Lords, I think that is an excellent note on which to end a very good, passionate, as usual, and expert, as usual, debate. I thank the noble Baroness for associating herself and her party with our grief at the death of Lord Darling.

It has been a debate about quality, and lots of elements that constitute quality have been raised. Lots of questions have been asked and I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for these known harms—and probably unknown harms as well. They are very important to explore. A whole range of issues constitute quality, including the value and the content of food and the absolute necessity of play—to quote Schiller, we are not fully human unless we know how to play.

I thank noble Lords for their emphasis on the essential nature of child development. Many questions were answered by the Minister but quite a few were not, so I would appreciate answers particularly to the questions I raised on the £400 million. I also have some questions arising from her winding up. There are reasons to be cheerful and we should not diminish the importance of, for example, those statistics about numeracy and literacy in the later primary years. However, while the information brought forward yesterday by the department suggested that 67% of children are in good development, there are still a third of children who apparently are not—that is a very high proportion. I would like that to be explored.

I would also like to know more about when the evaluations will start—I hope that it will be immediately. There are lots of initiatives, but the Minister did not really answer the questions which are so fundamental about the coherence of strategies, particularly for retention, and going forward with this acknowledged frailty in the system.

I have much more I could say, which I do not think anybody would be grateful to hear at this stage, but I am very grateful to the Minister because I know we share a huge range of values and both sides of the House want this policy to succeed. I am grateful that we have had an opportunity to dive a bit deeper into some of the issues. I would like to follow up some of the questions when I read Hansard and I will pass on the invitation to the agencies. I am sure they would appreciate a personal conversation with the Minister, because there are always more questions and there is always more to do.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 5.41 pm.