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House of Commons Hansard
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Early Years Development and School-Readiness
12 July 2016
Volume 613

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Before James Berry moves the motion, I just want to indicate that quite a number of Members wish to contribute to the debate, which will last for only an hour and a half. Of course, the Front-Bench spokesmen and the Minister will need to make their contributions, so we are looking for brevity if we are to get everybody in.

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered children’s early years development and school readiness.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this motion, which had cross-party support, for debate. I also thank Save the Children, for which I am a parliamentary champion, and the Sutton Trust and London Councils for their help in preparation for the debate.

I would like to record my profound sadness at the death of Jo Cox, who was one of the signatories to the application for this debate. The subject meant a lot to her and she would have made a very valuable contribution were she here with us.

It is a real privilege to speak on this subject given my family background. Both my parents were teachers who dedicated their lives to improving children’s life chances, and they were firmly of the view that, of all the interventions available to the state, investment in education was the best tool for promoting social mobility. It is fair to say that since my parents finished their teaching careers, a significant body of evidence has developed that suggests that the best and ripest time for interventions that have an impact on a child’s life chances is in not secondary school or even primary school, but in the early years.

I was delighted to stand last May on a platform that included a commitment to invest in the early years, including by doubling the availability of free childcare for three and four-year-olds from 15 to 30 hours. Indeed, the Prime Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) launched that policy at Advantage Day Nursery in Tolworth in my constituency. As they were completing a puzzle with some four-year-old children, one child looked at the Prime Minister and said, “David, why are all those people taking photographs of us?” The Prime Minister’s response was, “If we finish this puzzle, they might just go away.” Well, the puzzle was duly completed, the election was won and this House has now delivered on the Government’s commitment to 30 hours of free childcare, which will be rolled out next year.

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The hon. Gentleman talks about the need for a specific focus, and I entirely agree with that. The Welsh Labour Government focus on the years from pregnancy to the age of seven by looking at every single agency that is involved in a child’s life during that time. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that sort of holistic approach is necessary?

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That sounds like an interesting approach. In January, the Prime Minister launched the life chances strategy, which looks at the whole process from birth onwards, and there are the childcare offers for two-year-olds and for three and four-year-olds, but the holistic approach sounds like a sensible way forward.

The purpose of today’s debate is to ensure that the opportunity provided by the Government’s significant investment is grasped with both hands so that children’s life chances really are improved. I will make three key points, which are about the importance of children’s early years to their development; the lasting impact of poor early years input; and how the Government can make the best of this opportunity to promote social mobility.

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My hon. Friend talks about the importance of the early years. Does he agree that one of the best starts in life is to grow up in a strong, stable family, whatever the make-up of that family? In such a family, a child can enjoy secure relationships, which they can then develop in school with teachers and with other pupils. That gives them a firm ground on which to proceed in their educational life.

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I understand that research shows that growing up in a strong and stable family is important for life chances. Not everyone is able to grow up in a strong, stable family, but the presence of one or two good parents—and, where that is not possible, the presence of good early years education—can make a real difference to a child’s life chances.

Recent data have shown just how important a child’s early years are to their development. The National Academy of Sciences in the United States found that:

“Virtually every aspect of…human development, from the brain’s evolving circuitry to the child’s capacity for empathy, is affected by the environments and experiences that are encountered in a cumulative fashion, beginning…in the prenatal period and extending throughout the early childhood years.”

Evidence has demonstrated that the rapid development of the brain in the first few years of a child’s life provides the foundation for future health, wellbeing and attainment. Without stimulating environments and experiences in those early years, children will fail to develop the skills that they need, particularly language skills, in the same way as their peers. The extent to which a child’s life chances are fixed in the first two to four years is truly astonishing, particularly in the field of communication skills, which provide the foundation for vocabulary development and the understanding of language. They are a springboard to the literary skills needed to get through school.

A responsive adult caregiver can minimise the effects of significant stresses on a child’s development, such as growing up in poverty. That echoes the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Supportive parenting is recognised as an important protective factor against long-term disadvantage, as is professional early years input. Much could be said about parenting and the need for the state to consider supporting good parenting strategies, which the Prime Minister focused on in his January speech on life chances. However, for the purposes of this debate, I will focus mainly on the pre-school setting and the lasting impact of a poor early years experience.

Statistics show that one in three children in England start primary school without meeting the Government’s recommended level for early development. That figure is even higher among children from poorer backgrounds and among boys. In my borough of Kingston upon Thames, 87% of children reach the expected level of speech and language skills at the age of five, partly due to the demographic and partly due to the excellent early years opportunities in Kingston. The national average is 67%, but just 50% of children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds reach the expected standards at the age of five. That is worrying in itself, but it is even more worrying for three reasons.

First, children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to get the necessary help at home to get them school-ready. A study in Kansas in the United States has shown that by the time children of professional parents enter kindergarten, they have heard 19 million more words than children of working-class parents, and a staggering 32 million more words than children of parents on welfare. Secondly, the school-readiness gap between the richest and poorest five-year-olds is as big as 19 months, which is nearly two academic years. Thirdly, research shows clearly that children who start behind at primary school stay behind at primary school, and go on to stay behind at secondary school and in post-school academic and work opportunities.

Save the Children’s fantastic “Read on. Get on.” campaign, which a number of hon. Members here support, found that one in four children who did not meet the expected levels of speech and communication skills at the age of five failed to reach the expected reading levels at key stages 1 and 2. It also found that one in four of those children failed to meet the expected level in English at the age of 11. The findings go further than that, as they do not just apply to English but correlate with the development of ability in maths at the age of 11.

The Sutton Trust has demonstrated that the gap in early years development is directly correlated with later educational outcomes and, as a consequence, later life outcomes. Its paper “Subject to Background” shows that disadvantaged students are significantly more likely to do A-levels if they have attended any pre-school, and particularly if they have attended a pre-school offering high-quality early years education.

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I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that the early years point to later development. My local nursery in Torfaen—Abersychan Brynteg, which my daughter attends, incidentally—recently had an excellent Estyn inspection, achieved through innovative teaching and strong leadership by the headteacher. Does he agree that it is vital to have that in the early years?

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I agree entirely. Having visited a number of daycare nurseries in my constituency, as I am sure other hon. Members will have done in theirs, I have seen that well led operations are always the most successful, particularly when they are led by professional early years practitioners.

Children who start behind stay behind, and vice versa. Given that children who start and stay behind are more likely to come from families in socioeconomically deprived areas, a cycle of disadvantage is created. That cycle can be broken by improved guidance and support for parents and improved early years offers to ensure that when children arrive for their first day of primary school, they are ready to learn, whatever the circumstances into which they were born.

Finally, on how the Government can make the best of this opportunity, it is important to start by recognising what they have done. They have committed to investing nearly £3 billion a year in the early years, the greatest sum ever, to boost the availability and quality of the early years offer. There are a number of ways in which they can ensure that that massive investment has maximal impact on boosting social mobility. Those who speak later in the debate will no doubt add their own suggestions, but I have four.

The first involves the workforce. In Kingston, as in the rest of the UK, there are some excellent early years educators. Some are qualified early years teachers and others are not, but the workforce is bound to increase significantly when the additional offer of 15 hours a week comes into force next year. It is encouraging that the Government plan to deliver an early years workforce strategy; that offers welcome recognition of the important role of that workforce in a child’s early development. Unsurprisingly, international studies have found that good-quality, graduate-led childcare secures the best early years outcomes, but the evidence also shows that good-quality early education disproportionally benefits boys and children from disadvantaged backgrounds—the very groups currently being left behind—not only in the short term but right through primary and secondary school. Equally, the evidence shows that low-quality childcare has no benefit, or even a negative impact on a child’s development.

Early years educators and staff with equivalent qualifications can play a critical role in creating high-quality learning environments in a nursery, providing leadership and increasing the skills of other staff. What assurances can the Minister give the House that the early years workforce strategy will include plans to attract and retain enough bright staff for us to achieve the ambition of an early years teacher in every nursery setting?

My second suggestion is to increase the availability of speech and language therapy services. I was recently fortunate enough to meet the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and to see the speech and language therapy services provided by Your Healthcare in Surbiton, in my constituency. From those briefings, it is clear to me that access to high-quality SLT is vital to ensure that parents and early years staff are trained in the right strategies to optimise a child’s verbal communication development, and to enable early identification and specialist intervention when a child shows signs of a speech and language deficit.

Nevertheless, as the 2008 report by Mr Speaker—the Bercow report—showed, the availability of quality SLT services for nought to 19-year-olds is patchy across the country, and greater consistency is required. It is not possible, or indeed desirable, to have a full-time speech and language therapist in every single nursery, but high-quality SLT input into the curriculum and SLT-facilitated training for all staff in early years settings would be a big step forward. I hope that Kingston Council will consider funding such a programme locally, and that other local authorities will do the same nationwide.

My third suggestion is that we do not ignore the additional requirements of children with special educational needs or disability—a subject close to my heart, as my mother was a special needs co-ordinator. In London, 0.8% of children benefiting from early education have an education, health and care plan, the highest percentage in the country. The cost of providing childcare for children with special educational needs or a disability, whether or not they have a formal plan, is higher than for children without special needs. Under the current Government proposals, it is not entirely clear whether providers delivering the additional 15 hours for EHCP or SEND children will receive additional funding to meet those children’s needs. I would be grateful for the Minister’s clarification.

Finally, on take-up, the Government have introduced a number of early years schemes since 2010. Research by the Sutton Trust and the National Audit Office shows that although take-up for early years offers has generally been good, it has been poorer among the most disadvantaged families. From 2010 to 2015, uptake of the 15 hours of free childcare was 98% in the least deprived areas, but only 90% in the most deprived areas. The figures for the offer for two-year-olds are more stark. Against a departmental aspiration of 73% to 77% take-up, only 58% of parents of disadvantaged two-year-olds have taken up the offer. I appreciate that there may be more up-to-date figures, but those were the figures available to me. The very children who need such interventions, for which the Government are making funding available, are the least likely to receive them.

I know that the Department for Education advertises its early years offers, but the advertising campaign appears to be missing some of its core target audience. Given the disparity in uptake, it seems to me that a better solution would be to mandate the provision of a user-friendly information sheet to all new parents. One fixed point of parental interaction with the state might be when parents register their child’s birth; they could then be provided with the crucial information about what is on offer to help their children.

In his January speech on life chances, our Prime Minister recognised that the early years present a window of opportunity, saying:

“Destinies can be altered for good or ill in this window of opportunity.”

In the early years, parents can make a huge difference to their children’s life chances, as can the state through early years education. We have seen how high-quality early education can transform children’s future, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. If we want to achieve social justice and promote social aspiration, we must ensure that the Government’s welcome investment in the early years makes the best possible impact in that short window of opportunity. I look forward to hearing hon. Members’ contributions about how best to achieve that, and the Minister’s remarks on how he will ensure that it is achieved.

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Order. To give further guidance on the interpretation of “brevity”, it will mean three and a half to four minutes; then I think we will get everybody in.

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It is, as ever, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) for securing this important debate, and for his thoughtful opening remarks. I would particularly like to associate myself with his remarks about our dear friend, the late Jo Cox. We remember her fondly today.

I will be brief. I want to talk about poverty and its impact on children’s early years development and readiness for school. I recently produced a report on child poverty in my constituency, which showed that one in five children live in poverty. By any metric, that is a deeply concerning statistic. A childhood that is safe, supportive, warm and healthy, with the prospect of a bright future ahead, should be the right of every child, not just a luxury for some. It is important because how people start their life heavily determines what the rest of their life will be like. For those born into poverty, it is hard to climb out of it.

We know that poverty has a negative impact on children’s development in their earliest years. Figures from Save the Children, which does incredibly important work on early years development, show that in my constituency last year more than 200 children fell behind before they had even started school. Nationally, one in three children in England start school without meeting the Government-recommended level for early development. That should shame us all and ensure that we redouble our efforts to stop children falling behind.

A lot of good work is being done to stop children falling behind. In particular, I draw attention to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who has been a champion of early intervention for many years and was heavily involved in the cross-party manifesto “The 1001 Critical Days”, which contains a number of sensible policy suggestions. The Early Intervention Foundation is also leading the way on this issue by championing early intervention and, crucially, evaluating the evidence to find out what works.

Stopping children falling behind in their earliest years will require the Government to be bolder in their approach to tackling the root causes of child poverty and of children falling behind. I had hoped that a step towards that bolder approach would be delivered in the life chances strategy, which we were told would be forthcoming after the EU referendum. I was disappointed to learn that the announcement of the strategy has now been pushed back. I urge the Government to bring it forward at the earliest opportunity.

I make the case to the Minister that the possibility of new leadership at the top of the Government offers fresh opportunities to look again at these issues. There is no doubt that some of the Government’s measures over the past six years have contributed to children in my constituency remaining in or falling into poverty. There is now an opportunity to change that, so I urge the Government’s new leadership to be ambitious.

I am bringing forward a private Member’s Bill that will seek to legislate for a target to reduce child poverty and to introduce steps to measure how well the Government are performing in achieving that target. I would be happy to work with the Minister and the Government on the Bill, and urge them to consider the idea seriously. We can end the scandal that is child poverty only by everyone in this place working together, with national and local government working across society. I hope this important debate can be a step towards that goal.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) for securing this debate.

I would like to take the debate in a slightly different direction. I was a school governor for a long while before I came into this place, covering early years and senior years, and I have four children. I am concerned about, and want us to bear down on, the fact that the problem is not diminishing; school resilience, early years development and school-readiness are increasing problems throughout all parts of society. While I am talking, the Minister should keep in mind the fact that mine is a large, rural constituency. There are enormous problems with delivering in rural environments as opposed to metropolitan ones, such as the relevant organisations not having enough staff.

I shall concentrate first on the fact that school-readiness is not a “one hit”; it has to be started from the beginning. Early years teachers in the readiness setting cannot do it in that final year, with four-year-olds. It has to start earlier. We know what the problems are: they were largely indicated in the NSPCC report; the important research on speech and language therapy that was carried out for the Scottish Parliament in 2014; Speaker Bercow’s report in 2008; and the work done by Save the Children and Newcastle University in 2013. But what about the solutions?

Speech and language enable our children to communicate. If they cannot communicate, they are disadvantaged—end of. In Suffolk, we have a paucity of speech and language therapists. That is probably because the demand on the system is rising. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, we need to address that problem.

We teach our children through nursery rhymes and repetition. We now have less talk in our daily lives and more use of mobile devices and so on. Our children face away from us when we are pushing them in prams. From their earliest start, children need to look at an adult’s face to see our facial expressions. Not one Member present will not have laughed at a baby taking a little bit of lemon in its mouth and looking as if it has been given something dreadful to taste. These things help our children to learn and are incredibly important.

The way we ask our children to do things is important. If someone says, “Cake?” to a child, they can say yes or no. If someone says, “Does Emily want a piece of cake?”, that gives the child the ability to interact and develop language. A child who has had the benefit of good language skills before they go to school is not only not 18 months behind—those months are impossible to make up—but will accelerate through school.

Children learn to listen when we talk. As we know in this place, the ability to listen can be very useful throughout life. Children must learn resilience. It is hugely important that they are allowed to fail. The rise in mental health issues later in children’s lives shows that teaching them resilience—letting them understand that they can fail in a situation and that that is not wrong—helps them.

We do not do enough to develop personal skills. Children must be allowed to put on their own coats. One in four children arrive at school in nappies. It is absolutely criminal that teachers have to try to teach while spending their time getting children dry, and that is particularly difficult if there are few classroom assistants. I had four kids under five. Mine all got dry by 18 months, because it is ruddy expensive to leave them in nappies. There is no excuse. It was felt discriminatory to insist children were dry, but it is not. We should be providing environments that help parents to understand. Parenting support is one thing that I ask for.

Outdoor play is also important. Children climb and improve their muscle tension. A lot of children arrive at school unable to hold a chubby crayon because they have held iPads and other such things. Children need to play and to explore. We need to build that into their routine.

I urge the Minister to think of rural areas and not treat them the same as towns, particularly in relation to workforce planning. We parents buy our childcare for the hours that suit us. That might not work with the business model of nurseries and the early years provision that enables school readiness. As the Bercow report and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, we need to improve speech and learning support. We need to consider parenting classes to encourage supportive families around our children, to ensure that children do not fail in the system.

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Order. Speeches should now be kept to around three minutes.

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I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) for securing this debate on such an important subject.

In these times of national turmoil, as the UK looks to redefine its status in the world and concerns about our economy loom large, it has never been more important for us to fulfil the potential of all our citizens. It has never been more important to ensure that we give our children every educational advantage available. We need each and every one to be equipped to play their part.

The previous Labour Government understood that education is the foundation for all: “Education, education, education”. In that context, there is a lot of talk of GCSEs and A* to C grades, and, as a former secondary school teacher, parent, school governor and nursery school governor, I know that they are extremely important.

In my constituency, which is fast becoming a hub for advanced manufacturing and is developing as a centre of prosperity, there is much talk of improving educational standards. It is vital that we all recognise the starting point. The launch pad for our children is not in secondary school, when they are aged 11, and nor is it in primary school. It is in those very important pre-school early years that the foundations for success are laid.

Consider the fact that the total size of the human brain is 95% of its maximum size by the age of six. That is really important. It is true that cortical and subcortical components of the brain change dramatically during childhood and adolescence, but the fact remains that 95% of human brain function is developed by the age of six, so what happens in the early years is incredibly important for the individual’s future wellbeing and economic success.

Of course, the earliest education for the child begins in the home. When that is compromised in deprived communities, when that is limited because parents and carers have themselves been deprived of education, opportunities and extended experience, when that is curtailed because every ounce of the parents’ energy is expended on grinding out an impoverished existence, the child is deprived of crucial learning opportunities and so often disadvantaged from the outset.

It is especially for those reasons that the state must concentrate on providing quality early years education. The experiences of a child in their early years are critical for their future, encouraging the drivers of learning, curiosity and imagination, as well as critical learning behaviours. Self-regulation, resilience and empathy are key to a child having positive early learning experiences.

Indeed, there is a growing body of understanding that demonstrates that these early behaviours have a significant impact on life chances and employment prospects. Recent research has clearly shown that children who have access to quality nursery school education go on to high levels of school achievement, have positive attitudes and achieve higher test scores. They are less likely to need remedial or special education; they are more likely to go on to further and higher education; and they are more likely to have stable employment. They have a significantly lower incidence of involvement in criminal activity, are less likely to need access to social services and are less likely to engage in substance abuse.

Therefore, it is clear that if we genuinely want to effect change in our country, we should begin in these early years. Only yesterday, I was speaking to a nursery school teacher in Tower Hamlets—I will have to leave her comments for another time, as my time this morning is limited. I will just say that I am extremely concerned that we are confusing childcare with quality nursery school education and I am worried to hear from nursery school headteachers that recent cuts in budgets for nursery schools mean that it is difficult for them to keep quality and qualified nursery staff in their schools. It is admirable that the Government want to increase free childcare to 30 hours, but that must not be confused with quality education. The Government know the difference and should invest accordingly, because while childcare can educate children, it is not the same as planned nursery education. For the sake of our children and the prosperity of the country, I ask the Minister to give an assurance that the Government will prioritise investment in early years education.

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Order. To assist with time discipline, the speech time is now going to be displayed on the screens around Westminster Hall.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) on securing this debate. I also declare an interest as a former infant schoolteacher. Indeed, almost exactly six years ago I was just ending my previous career. My first day as an infant school teacher remains the scariest new day in any job I have ever undertaken. Sadly, infant school was not the last time that I have dealt with five-year-olds’ behaviour.

I will talk briefly about the Imagination Library, which is a project we have developed in north Lincolnshire and in the east riding of Yorkshire—people may know of it. It is a free book-gifting scheme, which was originally established by Dolly Parton in Tennessee in the United States, and then brought here some years ago. As an infant schoolteacher, I obviously understood the importance of kids reading at home and how much better prepared they were when they turned up at school having actually opened and read a book, and read with their parents or carers. Sadly, for too many of the children I used to teach in Scunthorpe, that was not the case.

When I became an MP, I was fortunate enough to be able to work with North Lincolnshire Council, under the innovative leadership of Baroness Redfern and Councillor Rob Waltham, to establish the Imagination Library scheme in north Lincolnshire. The scheme now delivers books to 87% of all five-year-olds in our borough. Since we started the scheme in 2013, it has already had a significant impact on the results of kids who arrive at school. In 2015, 70% of our five-year-olds in north Lincolnshire were judged to have achieved a good level of development by the time they arrived at school, compared with just 53% in 2013.

This free book-gifting scheme is wholly integrated with the NHS locally and with our children’s centres—of course, we have protected and actually expanded some of our children’s centres in north Lincolnshire. The scheme is also integrated with our library service—of course, in north Lincolnshire we have actually built new libraries and extended all of our library opening hours to support this scheme, which has had a really transformative effect.

As I said, 87% of all five-year-olds in north Lincolnshire are now registered with the scheme; indeed, in parts of my patch, on the Isle of Axholme, 92% of children are registered. The scheme is open to every child and it is having a really transformative effect. In the other part of my constituency, which is in the east riding of Yorkshire, the council has not funded the scheme, but I myself run and fund a scheme in Goole that has 56 children signed up to it. Getting books out to kids from a very early age to get them reading and learning with their parents gives them the very best start in school.

I do not have time today to go on too much further, and have just two questions to put to the Minister. First, what assessment has been made of schemes such as the Imagination Library? The Scottish Government provide the Imagination Library to all looked-after children in Scotland and perhaps we could consider doing something similar. Secondly and finally, will he look at the Imagination Library’s bid to the Department for Education’s children’s social care innovation programme, which will mean more of these books being distributed to more children nationally?

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I will focus on early intervention and school-readiness. In 2013, Home Start UK, working with the Department for Education, undertook a pilot programme over a two-year period called “Big Hopes, Big Futures”. The report that emerged from the pilot showed that, in 2014, there was a 19% gap in achieving a “good level of development” between children on free school meals and their classmates. Action for Children’s most recent report shows that, in the past two years, there has been improvement but by only 1%. Ofsted’s assessment in 2015 was that the gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers, in terms of early years development and school-readiness, was not closing.

Why are we not getting results? I had a quick look at some of the Library briefing papers on poverty in the UK and on early intervention from the Library. We have Healthy Child programmes, Healthy Start and Public Health England’s seven national priorities, and we are getting support from health visitors and family-nurse partnerships, so why are we not getting the improvements that all of us wish to see?

We can make a difference, but solely increasing free childcare hours should not be seen as a panacea. Families supported by the “Big Hopes, Big Futures” programme saw an improvement of between 25% and 33% in their children’s school-readiness for language, cognition, behavioural adjustment, daily living skills and family support. Not only did that programme directly affect the children, but it helped the parents in many ways, from improving their physical and mental health to improving their skills and knowledge of early years and child development, as well as their work-readiness.

If we know the impact of those schemes, why are two out of every five children in deprived areas lagging behind their classmates on measures of child development? That is true around the country and true in my constituency of Great Grimsby, where 34% of children—more than 400 children—are not reaching a good level of development by the age of five. The answer is not all about academic achievement, because everything from the ability to make friends and form good relationships to understanding feelings form part of what it means to be school-ready.

A study undertaken in 2000 found that socio-emotional and behavioural development help to improve a child’s “teachability”, and do far more than a traditional simplistic focus on reading, writing and arithmetic would. The “Big Hopes, Big Futures” report cited international studies that demonstrate the “pivotal” importance of family support in the transition from home to school. It recognised that many families in the “deprived” category have multiple needs, and that helping them requires complex intervention-based solutions. That is why I am surprised and disappointed that a scheme in my constituency that has existed since 1995 to provide exactly those sorts of solutions was first of all wound down to a narrow perinatal pilot scheme and then closed in March this year, owing to a lack of funding.

I know that I only have a little time left—well, not any time at all—but I will extend my speech anyway before I get told off. I will just mention the funding, because there are issues around where pupil premiums are spent and whether they are really making a difference, and around the reductions in and changes to the early intervention grant—that funding was reduced to a figure 20% below the original 2010-11 allocation. It also included a specified amount for education places for disadvantaged two-year-olds, but because it was not ring-fenced by local authorities, that money did not have to be spent in that way. Subsequently, the funding was subsumed into a dedicated schools grant; the payment of the remaining early intervention grants was transferred into the business rates retention scheme; and the remaining £150 million was centralised into the DFE for adoption and reform grants. We need to ensure that that funding gets to the appropriate areas and schemes that can actually help disadvantaged children.

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I wanted to take part in this debate because I strongly endorse the four points with which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) began: the workforce, speech and language therapy, special educational needs and disability—SEND—and what the most disadvantaged need most. He was absolutely right about that last point and, with regard to my own constituency, I am sad to report that Norwich recently turned out to be a cold spot of social mobility according to the social mobility index—the Minister is familiar with that. I am leading local work to investigate the finding, which returns us directly to the fact that we need to focus on the point in the early years when intervention can make the most difference for later years. Evidence on life chances shows a very clear progression when intervention starts as early as possible.

On getting the help to those who need it most, I would like to present a local example of impressive joint working in Norwich between a children’s centre, health visitors and a school. It is a tight-knit geographical cluster, but they are taking on the challenge of reaching out to those who most need the help—my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton pointed out that there is a risk that those who need the provision less are the ones who use it. It is no secret to anyone that children’s centres need to be able to use their resources in the most effective way, and I thoroughly support that team in Norwich in their efforts to reach out to those parents and families who need the support most.

There is also a clear piece of work that children’s centres and infant schools in particular can do together—approaching school-readiness—which takes me on to another theme that has been well-argued already this morning. I concur that school-readiness is crucial. Will the Minister take the opportunities presented by the expansion of the 15 hours’ childcare offer to 30 hours and the associated funding formula changes to review what he expects of school-readiness? I note that in the 2014 “Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage”, school-readiness is rightly laid out but, currently, settings report to local authorities on request. The Minister might like to look at that. He has a puzzled look on his face—it is on page 15 of the statutory early years framework document. I urge him to see what can be done to help childcare and early years settings work with schools, as in the local example I presented.

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I was pleased to serve on the Childcare Bill Committee last December to try to improve what was, on the face of it, tremendously powerful legislation designed to make a huge difference for our youngest children before school. Sadly, Ministers did not recognise the flaws in their plans, so I tabled a new clause that would have meant they were mandated to ensure that all three and four-year-olds had access to high-quality, flexible and accessible early education and childcare provision, delivered by well-qualified, confident and experienced practitioners and led by an early years graduate. It would also have required Ministers to publish proposals for the development of the early years workforce. At the time, early language attainment was increasing, but the pace of improvement was so slow that it would have taken more than a decade of similar progress to get all children school-ready by the age of five. Figures from Action for Children suggest that one in three children across England still arrives at school not ready to learn. Yes, I recognise that policy changes take time to have an impact, but I have reservations about whether the world of childcare out there is able to deliver what the Government say is needed.

Half of children living in low-income families will arrive at school ill-equipped, as will almost 40% of children who live in our most deprived communities. In the north-east, where my constituency sits, fewer than two thirds of children will have reached a good level of development before starting school at the age of five, which is significantly lower than the 70% in the south-east. However, the gap between the most and the least deprived communities is growing, while the gaps between the north and the south and between boys and girls have not changed in three years. The Government will, I am sure, have the support of every Opposition Member if they can narrow that gap during the current Parliament. We must not settle for the small changes of recent years. Will the Minister therefore deliver a new measure of child development at age five to allow a national picture of child development that incorporates a definition of school-readiness, to remove the uncertainty regarding the outcomes the Government believe early years education should deliver? Will they set ambitious goals to focus on those children whose life chances are being blighted from their earliest years, to close the attainment gap?

High-quality early education—specifically nurseries led by graduate early years teachers—has been shown to have the most significant impact on the early language skills of young children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But therein lies the cruelty of the current system. Childcare settings in disadvantaged areas are the least likely to be of high quality, which is why I argued during the Childcare Bill Committee for the Government to have both the power and the responsibility to ensure that all our children are cared for and taught by highly qualified professionals. Instead, we have a situation in which nurseries are unable to pay the wages needed to attract early years teachers because of the chronic underfunding of the free education entitlement from the Government. At the same time, universities are withdrawing their early years teacher courses because they cannot attract the applicants.

I ask the Minister: when will his long-awaited early years workforce strategy appear and will it include an assessment of the level of provision available and likely to be available in the next few months? Finally, what is he doing to ensure that all children have access to the high-quality care we all desire, delivered by high-quality professionals?

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) on securing this important debate on the investment of resources, time and effort in very young children so that they get the best start in life and at school. It does start with the family, whatever format that family may have, but it is also important that they get access to pre-school hours and nursery education.

Starting school can be a stressful time for any child, but for a child with special educational needs it can be even harder, and it is on that aspect that I wish to concentrate from a Northern Ireland perspective. Imagine the challenges that every child faces on their first day in the playground—socialising with new children, being in a new environment and coping with separation from parents. Imagine dealing with all that while also dealing with the challenges of an educational disability, such as Down’s syndrome or autism. Such children may make up only a minority of those starting school each year, but we in this House never lose sight of the duty we have to give children with special educational needs the best educational start possible. I am afraid I am not confident that that is happening in the Northern Ireland context.

Earlier this year, the parents of young children with special educational needs were sent letters telling them that the pre-school hours they were entitled to would be cut from four and a half to two and a half. Those plans could only have hurt children’s school-readiness, which is why the leadership forum for special schools came out so strongly against them, particularly on the grounds that they would give nurseries less time to help children overcome severe to extremely challenging behaviour. We have been told that the plans have been put on review and will not be implemented until September 2017. I suggest to the Minister that it might be useful to have some good exchanges with Ministers in the devolved Administrations to pool knowledge and expertise and implement best practice from the devolved regions alongside that which exists in England to ensure that children with educational and behavioural challenges get the best start in life.

Despite that review of the plans, we are still hearing of uncertainty at an individual school level. The Northern Ireland Education Authority has stated that the root cause of the problem is an unprecedented number of families needing to find places at special needs nurseries. If that is so, it fits with the broader picture that we have heard about today of children being brought up in poverty: children who face poverty are also facing that more difficult challenge. Children’s early education and long-term life chances are being held back by a scarcity of accessible nursery places and a lack of action from decision makers.

I am conscious, Mr Evans, that I have gone over my time. The important thing is to find solutions, and that is about investment in resources and pooling knowledge from across the regions.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. The way in which a child develops in their early years has a huge influence on every aspect of their lives, including their future economic wellbeing, educational attainment and health. More poignantly perhaps, a child’s early years development is key to their emotional development and their ability to sustain positive and meaningful relationships. Yet according to the Department for Education’s most recent early years foundation stage profile results, one in three children starts school without having achieved the expected level of early development.

To our shame, but perhaps not to our surprise, the likelihood of falling behind is much higher among the poorest children. In my constituency of Rotherham, 38% of children—almost four in 10—are not reaching a good level of development at the age of five. In fact, Rotherham ranks in the bottom 25%. How can four children in every 10 in my constituency be arriving for their first day of school unprepared to learn, socialise and thrive? It is appalling that we have a system where the postcode a child is born into can determine their readiness and preparedness on their first day of school. How can we have failed children to such an extent that their future chances of success have already been determined even before they begin formal education? I find the situation deeply frustrating, because it is something that this House could prevent with the right interventions.

Parents are the first mentors and role models for their children. They have a strong influence on their learning and play a fundamental role in helping their child develop. For a number of reasons, however, some parents simply need a bit of extra guidance on how to positively interact with their child. Through my Dare2Care campaign to prevent child abuse, I know that parents from all backgrounds are calling for support. There seems to be an assumption that people innately know how to be parents and have all the necessary parenting skills and that a parent is inherently skilled and ready to deal with even the most serious issues their child could face, such as sexual or online abuse.

During my roundtables, I heard from parents, charities and academics, and they all asked for support, including well-funded Sure Start centres at the core of every community, providing flexible, trusted parenting support; targeted support for parents who may be struggling to cope or may not be confident in their own abilities; and reviews of every existing point of intervention in a child’s development, including using the personal child health record or red book.

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I completely agree that parents need much more support to break cycles and give young children much better opportunities and life chances. Does the hon. Lady also agree that in certain areas support is available, but is not promoted or accessible? In my county, there is a lot of support, but the courses are too expensive, the hours are not appropriate and nobody knows about them.

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I completely agree with that, and it goes back to my original point about the postcode lottery, which cannot be fair. Every child in this country needs the best start.

The Government also need to run awareness campaigns highlighting the tell-tale signs of abuse. Tomorrow evening we may have a new Prime Minister, but can the Minister please tell us whether he still plans to take forward the Government’s life chances strategy? Will the strategy include action to provide parents with the support they are asking for to protect children from physical, sexual and online abuse? Will the strategy look at giving parents the tools to enable them to face the challenges their children have to endure? Will he look at every available existing opportunity, from Sure Start centres to health checks to free childcare, and outline how each intervention can be used to support parents? Finally, will he please tell us today whether the Government will use the opportunities created through the strategy to take action in the early years and improve the life chances of all children? The strategy should especially focus on the most disadvantaged children, because every child should have the opportunity to be the fully empowered citizen they deserve to be.

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We all recognise that the achievement of development goals in the early years is the foundation for a healthy life, whether that is socially, psychologically or economically. Given that, it is all the more important that state agencies and voluntary, community and faith sector schools, in partnership with and in support of families, do their utmost to play their part in ensuring that our children get the best start in life.

In my professional career as a social worker—I started in a day nursery—I never ceased to be amazed by the capacity of children to gain so much from play, social interaction, direction, encouragement and simple kindness. Children’s first smile, first wave, first frown, first crawl and first “no” are all part of the development process that brings joy to families. Of course, there are the downsides to child development, such as the sleepless nights, the tantrums, the crying, the sickness, the worries—and that is just the parents.

Notwithstanding the significant amount of research over the years in the whole field of child development, it is clear and self-evident that a loving and caring environment in which to grow is the most important gift that can be given to a child. I am sure that many parents in the room would do things differently in how we brought up our children, and I am no exception to that, but one key aspect for a child is the consistency of the care given to them by their parents or carers. At the other end of the spectrum, it is also important to ensure that parents or carers feel that they have a consistent economic environment in which they can nurture and help their children grow. It is therefore the responsibility of Government to ensure that the wider economic conditions in which families bring up children are as stable as possible. There also has to be the effective use of policy drivers, which many Members have alluded to.

It is the responsibility of us all to ensure that we have a nation of healthy children who have been given the best start in life, who live in a safe environment and who have good support and social systems there to help them. In particular, for those children who are not fortunate enough to have a stable, loving, caring family, it is all the more important that we do everything we can to ensure that they have as good a chance as possible to develop into mature, socially and personally confident children whose self-esteem is not damaged by their circumstances.

I hope this debate helps to play a part in keeping this very important issue on the agenda. I thank the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) for giving us the opportunity to say these few words of support. I also thank such organisations as Action for Children and Save the Children, which remind us of our responsibilities in this crucial area of social policy.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) on securing this debate. I cannot compete with the expertise. A lot of people have done a lot of work in this field already. I am, however, the grandfather of six grandchildren, all of whom are close to me. Two live next door. I spend at least as much time every week playing narrative games with Playmobil as I do making speeches in this place, and to somewhat better effect.

The goal of education—and life, I suppose—is the fulfilment of potential, and fulfilment is far more variable than potential. Crucial to that, as we have all recognised, is a good start. What does that good start look like? I think it can be defined only in broad terms, recognising that not every child does or can develop in precisely the same way. There is a danger in this debate of being far too precise, because a good start is not the same as an accelerated start, and the phenomenon of tiger mums and people fretting about their child’s development is a new cultural phenomenon. In our society, we tend to value educational learning, possibly above other factors that other cultures might value, such as emotional resilience or social skills.

Broadly, however, we have a concept of what a happy, developing, normal child is like and what their capabilities should be, and we simply find that some children do not match up to that, and it is fair to call them deprived. They are deprived in a range of senses: sometimes deprived of environmental stimulus and emotional support, and often deprived of parental attention and opportunities for creative play. Those are all forms of deprivation, and such children therefore arrive at school less capable of taking advantage of school and without parents who can teach or encourage them in how to take advantage. School therefore becomes a struggle and life becomes a struggle. We all recognise that; it has been well laid out by other Members in the debate.

Sure Start and many other policy initiatives sought to correct that. There has been a whole pile of initiatives, local and national, and they have varied in reach, impact, resource and effectiveness. I pay tribute to all the researchers and policy makers. I pay particular tribute to a Member who is not here and who has done an enormous amount of work on this matter in this House: the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). He has done a tremendous amount to put it on the agenda. Some of the policies, it has to be said, are slightly conflicted. Is childcare primarily about developing the child or about freeing the employment market a little bit?

My central and only point is that key to so much of this is the acquiring and teaching of parental skills. Children spend a lot of time at home—more than they ever will at school—and we cannot just assume that the skills are transmitted and passed on. As a Government, we recognised that fact, but we tinkered rather than addressed it full on. When Sarah Teather was in the chair that the Minister now occupies, some pilots were conducted and the Prime Minister spoke warmly about developing parental skills.

Most of the learning that we engage in during our hard-pressed time in school—learning the pluperfect, trigonometry or how to make a coat hanger, none of which I have had to use—has not done me any good in life. But I have had to be a parent, as will most people. Early learning development is simply not on the school curriculum in the significant way that it ought to be. There is a serious danger that in trying to develop all the policies outlined today we leave parents out of the equation, and we also leave the training of parents as very much a backstop issue rather than something that we ought to put up front as a major policy issue for any Government.

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I rise to speak in this debate as somebody who has experience of being an English teacher for more than 23 years before I entered this place. As the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said, there are certainly similarities in the kind of behaviour that we might encounter. I have a particular interest in this debate from that perspective. I do not think I have ever been involved in a debate where there has been such consensus about the need for all children from all backgrounds to receive the best start that we can possibly give them in life, which they deserve regardless of the circumstances into which they are born. For that reason, I thank the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) for securing this debate today and for encouraging this consensus that is so unusual in this place.

The hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) pointed out something that I think we would all agree on: if a child starts school when they are not school-ready, the entire school experience from primary 1 right through to the end of secondary is tainted by that. At worst, school is a very negative experience and at best it is tolerated. We have all talked about the importance of increasing the hours for early learning and childcare to 30 hours a week. That is to be applauded, but I want to pick up on some of the points that have been made. Fundamental to that increase is not simply providing childcare, but providing qualified professional experienced staff.

In Scotland, the 30 hours will be rolled out with the addition of 600 new early learning and childcare centres with 20,000 more fully qualified and professional staff. That is very important when rolling out extra childcare for the purposes of making sure that children are school-ready. But we can make all the policy decisions we like; we can sit here and pontificate and perhaps even throw investment, money and resources at the problem, but the experience at home is fundamental. We need to support parents at home as they bring up their children, particularly those who live in poverty and face much more challenging circumstances than we or they would like.

I want to bring a new dimension to the debate this morning because I believe that fundamental to child development, to being school-ready and to being a good citizen—indeed, fundamental to a happy life—is instilling a thirst for learning and an inquiring mind, and we do that through cultivating a love of reading. That must be nurtured in our children, but in order for us to nurture that in our children we need to nurture that in our citizens as widely as possible. That is why I will always argue and kick against any attempts to close libraries, particularly those in my own constituency.

I do not believe it is possible to talk about closing the attainment gap or raising attainment if we deprive citizens, particularly those in socio-economically disadvantaged areas, of access to books, because that is what closing down libraries too often means for too many of our citizens. Access to books for parents and for children is fundamentally and inextricably linked to reading attainment. If we want our children to come to school with inquiring minds, we must introduce them to books as early as possible: not just those living in poverty, but especially those living in poverty. We must support and encourage parents in their endeavours to read with their children so that reading becomes a part of what is done at home.

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The hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) talked about the fact that the most needy families do not necessarily engage. The same applies to books and libraries and getting people to go to libraries. What is the Scottish experience in getting people from deprived communities into libraries, and accessing early childcare as well?

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I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised that point because in Scotland we have initiatives. We have the Bookbug, PlayTalkRead and Read, Write, Count campaigns, and every parent with a new child is given a bag of free books for their children. That experience is repeated intermittently as the child goes from birth to the age of five and is supported in nurseries where books—the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole talked about the Imagination Library—become integral to raising attainment.

I do not think it is possible to talk about raising attainment unless books are a big part of that equation, so I am delighted that the Scottish Government have taken that on board. I despair when I hear of libraries closing down in any part of the UK, because I know that that means depriving people of books. I grew up in a family where, if I had not had access to a local library, I would not have had access to books, because the school library, such as it was, did not really exist. Books are fundamental to a happy and fulfilled life, to feeding the imagination and creativity, and to feeding the mind. Access to books is fundamental and must be part of this conversation.

Very often when we hear about libraries being closed down, it is about cost cutting and how we cannot afford them and need to make cuts, but some things we cannot count in pounds and pennies, such as what we get back in terms of informed citizens who are encouraged and supported, particularly those who have children. We obviously want to reach out to people who do not have children and who do not access the library, but we are talking about the next generation. We need to think about what we lose rather than what it might cost in pounds, shillings and pence. The Scottish Government’s Bookbug, PlayTalkRead and Read, Write, Count campaigns offer universal support for parents regardless of their socio-economic circumstances. Everybody has a stake in this.

Closing the attainment gap is very important, and early intervention is the canvas on which we must paint everything that we do. Early intervention must be about instilling the love of reading into our citizens as they become parents. We cannot afford to leave our children behind: if they are not school-ready for a full school life, it creates all sorts of social problems for the future. How we support parents with young children is an investment in the future. We must in all conscience and from an ethical point of view try to create a more inclusive educational and social environment for our citizens as they grow up and have their own children. We owe it to our children and we owe it to our country.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I hope to be brief so that I can give the Minister time to respond to the fantastic contributions that have been made. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) on securing the debate and thank him for his kind words about our friend Jo in his opening comments. I concur with many of his comments, and particularly his recommendations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) made stark comments regarding the one in five children who still live in poverty. I pay tribute to him for his work in tackling that issue. The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) was passionate in her commitment to ensure that the problems of school-readiness and the early years are tackled. As she said, those are growing problems, especially in rural areas. The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) reminded us that we must continue to consider all children, including those who live under devolved Administrations.

Getting a good start in life should not be a privilege; it is every child’s right. I have documented how my mum could not read or write. I was one of those children who did not see a book before going into education, so I can personally say how important early intervention prior to school is. I am also proud that I was a recipient of wraparound services such as Sure Start when I was a young mum, and I concur with the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Bootle (Peter Dowd) about that. Those services gave me and many of my friends much-needed support and a hand up in difficult times. The Labour Government were a trailblazer for early years intervention, and Sure Start is one of Labour’s greatest legacies.

Unfortunately, however, under the current Government, childcare and early years services have been left chronically underfunded. Early intervention services are failing to reach those most in need. Families with young children have borne the brunt of unfair Government cuts, and that looks set to continue in the near future.

My hon. Friends the Members for Burnley (Julie Cooper) and for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) made important contributions about the importance of the early years—that critical time before the age of six. The early years are not only about childcare but about ensuring quality education, which is crucial. We need a bigger vision for early education and childcare. Our kids deserve the best early intervention services that are the envy of the world. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) talked about some of his fantastic work before coming to this place and about the importance of library services—he helped set up a library scheme.

When will the Government commit the funds and resources required to match the universal acknowledgement, which we have heard today, of the benefits of the early years system? The Government response to Munro was fine words but no action. Will the Minister explain why the Government did not commit to a statutory duty on local authorities? One in three of the families who were promised free extended childcare by the Government before the last election are now set to miss out, as a result of the Government failing to make their sums add up. That was starkly illustrated in the pilot area of York, where not one childcare provider out of 30 was willing to take up the additional 15 hours due to the pitiful payment of £3.95 per hour.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) spoke passionately about the closure of services in her constituency. Why were Labour programmes scrapped, such as the graduate leader fund, which supported graduates to work in private and voluntary nursery and childcare settings, and the requirement for Sure Start children’s centres in the most disadvantaged areas?

In addition, real-terms spending per child on early education has fallen. There are 763 fewer Sure Start centres, child trust funds are ending, and maternity grants are being cut. Every child deserves an education that enables them to flourish in childhood and sets them up for life in Britain and the world. Early intervention is key to closing the life chances gap that exists for too many young people in constituencies such as mine.

The hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) reminded us of the importance of play in the family setting for learning and development. The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are crucial. What are the Government doing to recognise the importance of putting access to high-quality early education at the heart of Britain’s mission to tackle inequality? Today, 3.7 million children are growing up in poverty in the UK, costing the Government about £29 billion a year.

Parental income can have a profound effect on the educational attainment and long-term life chances of millions of children. Family income remains the most significant factor in a child’s success in education. Will the Minister at least acknowledge that changing child poverty targets could mean that thousands of children are forgotten, missed or left behind?

If we want to tackle poverty and build a truly productive economy, we need to look at how to make life easier for ordinary working families and help parents get back to work. The Government should be looking at how to ease the burden on working people and create a system of world-class early years provision. I am afraid their policies are doing just the opposite. Investing now in the essential formative years of a child’s life will be an investment in our country’s future.

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I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) on securing this important debate.

I agree that improving the life chances of our children is important to all of us, so I will first strike a note of consensus. In this country, we have strong cross-party consensus on the importance of the early years and the need to invest in them. The free entitlement offer was started by the most recent Labour Government, with 12.5 hours of free childcare for all three and four-year-olds. The coalition Government extended that to 15 hours, and the Conservative Government are doubling the entitlement to 30 hours.

In addition, the coalition Government introduced a free early education offer for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, recognising that we have to start even earlier with disadvantaged children. We also introduced the early years pupil premium, extending the pupil premium in schools to the early years so that disadvantaged three and four-year-olds can get extra funding for reading and intellectual stimulation. I will come on to the detail of that later.

There is therefore cross-party consensus, and the direction of travel in policy is broadly similar. Sometimes, however, in such debates as today’s, some Members seem to have an interest in making out that what is happening is really bad. I am not saying that we can afford to be complacent, but some good work is still going on in early years, in which we lead many parts of the world. For example, the entitlement to free early education for three and four-year-olds, which has an average take-up of about 96%, is unique in the OECD. We have achieved what many other countries in the OECD have not: a universal early education offer. We should be proud of that.

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I praise the Minister for his work on childcare, but although putting in all those resources is tremendous, universities are still withdrawing their early years teaching courses, because, as I said in my speech, they cannot attract applicants. The Public Accounts Committee has stated that the Department for Education has no “robust plans” to ensure that there are

“enough qualified early years staff so that providers can continue to offer high quality”

education. What will he do about that? We can throw as many resources as we like at the problem, but if we do not have enough people being trained to do the job, we will not be able to deliver his ambition and mine.

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I will come on to the workforce strategy in more detail, but the simple point is that from 2019-20 we will be investing £6 billion a year in the free entitlement in this country, which is more than we have ever invested before. If we fund providers, they will be able to pay the quality staff that they need so that they can attract and retain them.

For the early years, we do not have a system such as we have in schools, in which the Government try to control the number of staff going in. Most of our early years sector consists of private or voluntary providers, so we need to ensure that they are adequately funded to be able to attract and retain high-quality staff. That is why the Government made a strategic choice to invest in early years provision even at a time when many other Departments were having to have their budgets retrenched.

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As I said, we have all those resources being poured in, but if people are not applying to go to university for the necessary training, how on earth do we get people in? How do we incentivise them further to get them into the profession, so that we can—I repeat—deliver his ambition and mine?

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As I said, later this year we will be publishing a workforce strategy to go along with the introduction of the 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds. The strategy will focus on removing barriers to attracting, retaining and promoting staff. However, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that 87% of the workforce are qualified to level 3 at the moment, compared with 81% in 2010. The proportion of graduates is steadily increasing, with 13% holding at least level 6 qualifications, compared with 8% in 2010. There is still a lot to do, but the direction of travel is positive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton rightly mentioned the take-up of the free entitlements, in particular by the most disadvantaged. The three-year-old offer is a huge success, with 93% of families taking it up, and 97% of families are choosing to take up the offer for four-year-olds. In the case of the two-year-old entitlement, which is for the most disadvantaged 40% of families, 70% are taking up the offer. It is worth remembering, however, that the take-up of those entitlements is voluntary. Parents do not have to enrol their children, so it is remarkable that we have that many parents doing so.

My hon. Friend made a good point about how we market offers to parents, especially the two-year-old offer. We knew that a lot of disadvantaged families were suspicious of having to send their children to school that early, which was how some perceived it. Or if the mother was at home looking after the child—it was often the mother—they wondered why they should send their child to a nursery. The fact that the Government were involved made some of them nervous, so we did a lot of work in the Department to find new and innovative ways of marketing to those parents, even recognising that changing the colour of an envelope would make it more likely that it would be opened. To some families, brown envelopes looked like they came from the Government, so they would not open them at all, but if we made the envelopes more interesting they were more likely to open them. We are conscious that we need to drive take-up, and we need to look constantly at innovative ways to do so.

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The Minister is making some important points about encouraging parents to take up the offer. Does he recognise the real concerns of nursery school headteachers that are driving them to come down to Parliament in numbers with their governors—they are coming again tomorrow—to express concerns that they are no longer able to fund qualified teaching staff? That is particularly important in deprived areas.

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Nursery schools do a fantastic job. We will publish a reform of early years funding to go with the 30 hours’ free childcare. I have had meetings with those people and understand their concerns. I can give an assurance that we recognise the important work that they do, particularly in disadvantaged areas, and I certainly want it to continue and will do what I can to ensure that it does.

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An extremely brief factual question: will the Minister give us the results of his consultation and the funding formula he referred to before the summer recess, or should we await that a little later on?

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All I can say is that we want to provide that as soon as possible, because we understand the need for providers to prepare so that they can deliver the full 30 hours in 2017—it is in the “urgent” in-tray at the moment.

I will develop my points further and answer some of the questions that have been asked. On take-up, we will publish a workforce strategy shortly. Speech and language is absolutely important. If a child arrives at school and cannot communicate or recognise that those squiggly things on a page are words, and that words are used to form sentences, they have got a problem. One of the things the early years pupil premium is there for is for those disadvantaged kids to get extra funding—about £300 a head—and the nurseries can make a discretionary decision on how to spend that to ensure that those kids do not arrive at school already behind.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I will not take any more interventions, because of the time.

We have introduced reforms to improve the standard of literacy in the early years, which has included awarding grants, for instance through the National Day Nurseries Association’s literary champions programme, which supports practitioners to provide a high-quality, literacy-rich experience for all children. In 2015, 80% achieved the expected goal in communication and language, compared with 72% in 2013.

All of that sits in the broader context of life chances. School-readiness cannot be divorced from the broader discussion of life chances. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister set out his vision for improving life chances, and the Government want to transform the life chances of the poorest in our country and offer every child who has had a difficult start the promise of a brighter future.

We are already transforming lives. Since 2010, there are 449,000 fewer children living in workless households. The early years foundation stage framework is improving the quality of early education and care for young children, and our most recent results show that 66% are achieving a good level of development at that stage. A number of hon. Members touched on that point. It is worth noting that 66% is an increase of 14.6 percentage points in the past two years. The quality of settings continues to improve, with the highest proportion ever—86% of settings—judged good or outstanding in their most recent Ofsted inspections.

We know that some of the poorest children are already behind their peers by age three, before they start school. Such children miss out in the number of words they speak, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton pointed out, although the proportion of school children eligible for free school meals who achieve a good level of development is increasing—it was 51% last year, compared with 45% the year before. However, I will be the first to admit that we still have a long way to go.

Obviously, in considering school-readiness and life chances we also need to take into account what happens in the health sector. A number of hon. Members touched on that. All children aged from two to two and a half are offered a universal health and development review by a health visitor, which includes checking a child’s communication development and referring families to more specialist support if necessary. One thing that I introduced when I became the Childcare Minister was an integrated review for children who are not in early years settings, so that health visitors could recommend and introduce parents to other support services that they might need.

To touch on a point raised by the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), we also published “What to expect, when?” so that parents know what they can do to support their children’s development in the early years. It is easy for Government to think that we have all the answers, but children, especially in their early years, spend a disproportionate amount of time at home with their parents, so parents need to understand what good development is and what they can do to influence it. That is what our guide is meant to achieve.

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I am particularly interested in the role of health professionals and others who go into homes in the most deprived communities. What are the Minister’s policy ideas and instructions to encourage them to play a greater role in directing families to the childcare and literacy support we want them to have?

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A lot of home visits are done by health visitors, which is incredibly important. Health visitors are trusted by parents and do a great job. The previous Government and this Government have continued to invest in increasing the number of health visitors. I would like to see more joined-up activity between health and education in the early years. There are a number of great programmes out there, such as the Lambeth Early Action Partnership, which are successful because they join up health and education in early years interventions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) rightly touched on assessment. Obviously Ofsted is one way of holding nurseries accountable and assessing what they do—as I said, 86% of settings are rated good or outstanding—but the early years foundation stage profile is another way of ensuring that individual children reach a good level of development. That will become non-statutory in September, but we are looking at ways of ensuring that we continue to have such evaluation. She therefore raised a relevant and important point.

The point was made that we should differentiate between childcare and early education, especially when we talk about the 30 hours of childcare. I completely agree that childcare arranged for the purposes of parents’ employment is completely different from early education. That is why the first 15 hours of the offer is universal—so that every three and four-year old in the country is entitled to 15 hours of free early education. Why 15 hours? Evidence from the effective pre-school, primary and secondary education longitudinal study, carried out over 13 years, suggests that children at that age need a little bit of education every now and again. They need little and often, not the equivalent of a school week at the age of three and four. The eligibility for the second 15 hours—the employment offer—is based around parents’ work.

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Perhaps the Minister can give us a few seconds on workforce development.

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I have made it clear that we will publish the workforce strategy, which will look at workforce development.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) asked whether I would consider the bid by the Imagination Library. That bid is interesting, so I will take that on board and look at it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered children’s early years development and school readiness.