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Social Inequality (Children’s Centres)

Volume 627: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the role of children’s centres in tackling social inequality.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. This issue is close to my heart. I am a secondary school teacher—at least, I used to be—and a primary school governor, and I have a burning desire to ensure that every child, no matter what their background, gets the best possible start in life. I keep reading that the Government agree, but where is the consultation on children’s centres that we were promised in late 2015? A recent ministerial written answer said that the details will be published in due course. I start with a simple plea: please do not wait. We are days away from the summer holiday. In new, young lives, one year without intervention squanders many years of potential rewards.

I will make the case for why children’s centres are worth investing in. The accelerating demise of access to children’s centres across the country over the last seven years is one of the saddest outcomes of austerity. The evidence showed that they worked. If we are serious about creating a society where every child fulfils their potential, we need to get serious about breaking cycles of deprivation. We must not just listen to the evidence but act on it.

It is a sad fact that a child’s parents’ circumstances remain the best predictor of how that child will do as an adult. Well-respected organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children have presented evidence over many years showing that, if we want to break that cycle and create a fairer society, we must not only focus on the bottom 5% but cast a much wider net to avoid stigmatisation and build community resilience.

Every single one of the children’s centres in my constituency closed last year. In fact, Oxfordshire County Council set out in 2013 to close all 44 children’s centres in Oxfordshire, explicitly to save £8 million from the early intervention budget as part of a £22.5 million saving across the department as a whole. Following a big grassroots campaign, the Liberal Democrats proposed a £l million transition fund, which was added to a cross-party budget in 2014. It has led to support for 29 community-led schemes, including in Kidlington, Cutteslowe, Botley and soon South Abingdon. However, they will provide only some of the services previously provided by the children’s centres, and one is run entirely by volunteers—I thank those volunteers especially for their hard work and service. There is no clear plan for what will happen after three years, and no long-term, sustainable solution.

The hon. Lady will know that I have some involvement as Chair of the Select Committee on Education at the time that children’s centres were established. She is right: all the research shows that early interventions such as Sure Start and children’s centres are the answer, but up and down the country, children’s centres have closed, and there is no policy and no money for early years intervention. I am glad that she is taking up the cudgels.

These stories demonstrate why it was a big mistake to remove the ring fence from the Sure Start budget. What we have seen across the country is that the seemingly more urgent issues of older children, such as behaviour management and preventing teenage pregnancy and drug use, win out. The older a child gets, the harder it is to intervene, and the more expensive the interventions become. Given the difficult choices and the reality of cuts, it is no wonder that measures provided by children’s centres have not been given the prominence that they deserve. After all, those children have yet to impact others.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Clearly, there is a lot of evidence that investment in the early years is good for children’s future life chances, but does she also agree that the issues are not entirely mutually exclusive? Unwanted pregnancies and the issues facing single-parent families can be dealt with through effective interventions linked to children’s centres. They work well. That is an important point for investment.

I agree entirely. Joined-up thinking in early intervention is important.

Parents tell me that children’s centres are a lifeline. The services that they provide, such as parenting support and breastfeeding and baby health advice, are valued by many, but almost as important is the sense of community that they create. Families who would never normally interact bond over the common challenge of making it through the day with a delightful but occasionally demanding toddler. How many parents have met friends for life at Stay and Play? It takes a whole community to achieve such aims, and there should be no stigma in asking for help.

In the past, the Government have accused those who raise the issue of being obsessed with the number of buildings. I am not, but I am obsessed with outcomes and access, and I can tell the Minister that we have a problem, especially with access. The impact on access comes from a double whammy: the remaining centres are far apart, and local transport links have been reduced. The convenience of getting to a site is a key factor for the families who need the services the most. I believe that we are at risk of leaving behind the same families that the Government purport to want to target.

I met a lovely woman a few weeks ago in Kidlington who explained that the new centre there has reopened but on a different site, and that it offers fewer services than the original centre. She had recently given birth to her seventh child, in a family that already included two sets of twins—I told her I thought she was a saint. Both she and her partner work full-time to support them all, but they are just getting by. Because the centre has moved out of walking distance and there is no direct bus link, she feels she can no longer get there. She said, “I can’t face the journey, and also when I get there, they can’t cater for everyone. I used to be able to go and there was something for all of us as a family to do. I really love to go, but it’s just too much hassle.”

The hon. Lady is being generous. Did she see the Children’s Commissioner’s report, launched yesterday, on how many children in this country are vulnerable on all the criteria? Will she please talk to the Children’s Commissioner about her campaign? At the moment, there are so many vulnerable children out there, and given the cuts in local government finance, local governments are unable to run proper children’s services?

I imagine she was quite busy with her seven children, but I will encourage her to do so.

One anecdote should not policy make. As motherhood and apple pie as this all sounds, I believe that education policy should be firmly evidence-based, so let us consider that. More needs to be done to ensure that all services provided by children’s centres are evidenced and effective. I applaud the work of the Early Intervention Foundation as one of many organisations adding to that body of evidence. We need much more of it. I also believe that all staff should be well-trained and properly qualified, and that allowances need to be made for differences in population. What works in one setting does not always work in another. We need to give credit to the professionals who can make an in-depth judgment, in the moment, of what works for the families in front of them.

The Government’s own evidence shows that interventions for one to three-year-olds play a vital role in life chances, especially for the poorest children. The Oxford University children’s centres study that was instigated by the Department for Education reported last year. It backed up what countless studies before it had showed: the benefit of interventions such as baby health and parenting support. Not only do they give value for money by improving outcomes for families as a whole; down the line, they help to reduce the chances of bad behaviour or smoking and raise educational attainment. The study further extrapolated that interventions will reduce joblessness and raise incomes for children in the future. What is there not to love?

As we have seen in Oxfordshire, the problem is that there is no budget. We need real long-term thinking at central Government level. The results of these interventions will not be seen again by the Exchequer until the children themselves start to pay it back in decades to come, but in my view it is worth the wait. Part of the answer is money. Hon. Members ask where it will come from. Frankly, it will come from the future. We borrow to invest in our own finances at home to reap rewards later, and the same principle applies. There is no single magic wand, but several magic wands waved early enough can make a big difference.

I look forward to the Minister’s reply and to contributions from colleagues. In my view, nothing is more important than the wellbeing of the next generation. Children’s centres are a proven and cost-effective way of promoting just that. Let us give our children everything we can and invest in them now, as a down payment on a more equal and fairer society in future.

I am very pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing this incredibly important debate.

Tackling inequality is an absolute priority for the Government. I am pleased to have the opportunity to set out our position on the valuable contribution that children’s centres can make to the lives of disadvantaged children. I reassure the hon. Lady that I, too, have a burning desire to help these children. The Government are committed to improving social mobility and extending opportunity to all.

Children’s centres can play a very important role in offering families access to a wide range of flexible local services. I was fortunate enough to visit a fantastic children’s centre in my Scarborough constituency not so long ago, where I saw for myself how important children’s centre services can be to families with young children. Indeed, all three children’s centres in my constituency are still open. I was interested to hear from families and staff there that the people they really want to help are not in the children’s centres—they are the people who do not engage and do not see the advantage of coming. One of my tasks in my new role is to ensure that we can get to those families who are not in the children’s centres and in some cases are not even taking up the free childcare that is available. They are probably at home watching daytime television and do not see the importance of the home learning environment, or indeed the importance of taking up the offer that is there from this Government.

Children’s centre services can include early years provision, child and family health services, information, advice, training and employment services for parents, and social services for those parents who need extra support.

On improving the offer for people who are among the most disadvantaged and most in need of support and help, does the Minister agree that there is a certain fragmentation when it comes to joining up the work of health visitors and family nurses, who support some very disadvantaged families, with the opportunities available in children’s centres, which support some equally disadvantaged families?

My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point that relates not just to children, but to the elderly: health and social services do not necessarily speak to each other or work together as much as they might want to. However, I pay tribute to the tremendous work of health visitors, particularly when new babies are born and families need assistance.

I welcome the Minister to his role. I do not want to be nasty to him on his first outing, but he mentioned people watching daytime television. I have to say that many of the people we are talking about are trying to keep their lives together by doing three jobs on zero-hours contracts rather than watching daytime television. How many children’s centres are still there? How many were there in 2010, how many were there in 2015, and how many are there now? That is the crucial point: they are closing all over the country, especially in the areas of greatest deprivation. What is the Minister going to do about it?

I should make a particular point about the offer that is available from this Government. We are improving the amount of childcare available. The point I made about daytime television was a point made by the staff at the children’s centre I visited. The issue that the hon. Gentleman should look at, particularly in respect of those working, is the offer coming forward in September for 30 hours of childcare for those in work. It will be a great opportunity for those who have been juggling work and childcare responsibilities. Indeed, many people will now be able to work during office hours, so to speak. Many families have had the problem of the husband and wife passing in the doorway at 6 in the evening when the husband returns from work and the wife has to go out to do additional—

Yes, I will. The position is not as bad as the hon. Gentleman points out. Let me give him some figures on childcare centres. Oxfordshire County Council had to close 41 of its children’s centres in the first quarter, including several in the constituency of the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon. However, according to information supplied by local authorities, there were 2,447 children’s centres and an additional 735 linked sites—a total of 3,182 children’s centre sites—at the end of May 2017. Some 457 children’s centres had closed since 2010, and 14 new centres had opened.

I hope those figures clarify the matter. There had been some confusion in cases where a number of sites had been operated by one provider. Those should not be counted as closures, because those sites are still open.

On a positive note for the provision of children’s services in Oxfordshire, does the Minister join me in welcoming the council’s development of a new service for children that will combine children’s social care and early intervention, so that there is one seamless service?

Yes, absolutely. It is about providing a joined-up service, and enlightened local authorities understand that. They also need to ensure that the additional offer and the additional money going into childcare—more than £6 billion by 2020—dovetail with their own provision.

My next point follows on from that. Children’s services do not have to deliver all their services themselves. Indeed, they deliver many of them through local statutory, voluntary, community and private sector partners. The context in which children’s centres operate has changed since they were established. Funding for children’s services, including children’s centres, gives local authorities the freedom to decide how best to target resources and respond flexibly to local need.

We believe that it is up to local authorities to decide how to organise and commission services from children’s centres in their areas. Local authorities are best placed to understand local needs and how best to meet them, which does not always have to be through a children’s centre building. For example, the Government have established the troubled families programme to support those with multiple problems. Responsibilities around public health for under-fives now sit with local authorities.

The Minister is being generous in giving way. I congratulate him, as I should have done earlier, on his new position. The point about troubled families is concerning for all hon. Members present, given the difficult financial position that local authorities find themselves in. The level of provision is left to local decision making, but local authorities in difficult times often provide only the statutory minimum. There is a real challenge here, so what will the Minister do about it? How will he link up the good work done in early years by health visitors with what happens afterwards? Many disadvantaged families are losing out, which is affecting the children as well as the families themselves.

My hon. Friend makes another very reasonable point. Indeed, one of the challenges in our opportunity areas, where we are particularly focusing on disadvantage and how we can close the attainment gap, is considering how we can make early interventions with those hard-to-reach families, many of whom do not take up the childcare offer that is available— 15 hours of childcare are available for disadvantaged two-year-olds. Indeed, for those in work—many of these families are in work despite having difficulty in making ends meet—the 30 hours available from September will be a great fillip.

The Minister is a good, honest Yorkshireman—I know him to be one—so will he give me a straight answer to a question? He knows that the Children’s Commissioner made that announcement to which I referred. There was no Government Minister at the launch of the commissioner’s report on Monday, and I cannot understand why. Regarding all these vulnerable children, we know that the troubled families programme has been a disaster. What have the Government learned from that and what are they going to do to react to the commissioner’s report, which, as I say, was launched only this Monday?

I met the commissioner the week before and we discussed some of the points that she has made. Indeed, her work is very valuable in feeding into what this Government are doing and will continue to do in future to address the problem. As I have already said, we have introduced 15 hours a week of free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds and the diversity of childcare provision means that children’s centres play less of a role in delivering childcare themselves.

I am sure hon. Members agree that it is vital that every child, regardless of their background, is given the opportunity to reach their full potential. We know that the first few years of a child’s life are critical to shaping their future development. We also know that high-quality pre-school education reduces the effects of multiple disadvantage on later attainment, and on progress in both primary and secondary school. We recognise the crucial importance of early years education. With two fifths of the attainment gap embedded by the age of five, improving outcomes for our most disadvantaged children remains a top priority for this Government.

The evidence shows that all children benefit from a high-quality pre-school experience, but disadvantaged children see additional benefits that continue beyond school. Children from less advantaged backgrounds can be up to 19 months behind in their learning by the time they start school. That is simply unacceptable. We want to close this gap. High-quality learning from the age of two can help us to do so.

This Government have invested heavily in childcare and early years education. By 2020, we will spend a record £6 billion per year on childcare. We will also invest an additional £1 billion per year by 2020 in the provision of free childcare entitlements. In response to concerns from providers, we have increased the average funding rate for disadvantaged two-year-olds from £5.09 per hour to £5.39 per hour. The early years pupil premium continues to provide over £300 per eligible child, and we have also committed to provide supplementary funding of around £55 million per year for maintained nursery schools until 2020.

It is fantastic that more and more children are benefiting from that support. Currently, 97% of four-year-olds and 93% of three-year-olds are accessing funded early education. In addition, I welcome the figures that were published just last week showing a further increase in the proportion of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds accessing funded early education, which now stands at 71%. Nevertheless, I am happy to work with the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon to increase that figure, including in her constituency.

That is a deluge of statistics and information, which I very much appreciate—all Members who are here today will be grateful for them and we will all want to trawl through them. However, has the Minister discussed the present situation with the National Day Nurseries Association, which is a very lively organisation that is based in my constituency of Huddersfield? Its staff are very wise, so will he please meet them very soon to discuss early years provision?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—we have a deluge of delivery for our young children. I am very proud that we are stepping up to the mark in that regard. I would be more than happy to meet his constituents in Huddersfield to discuss that. My wife used to run a pre-school playgroup and then went on to work as a classroom assistant, so I know from experience within the family how important this type of provision is—if it helps at all, my mother was a primary headteacher.

What is more, the 30 hours programme, which will roll out nationally in September, will support around 390,000 working parents with the cost of childcare. I am pleased that 100,000 working parents have already registered for this additional childcare. I encourage working parents who have not already registered to do so before the deadline at the end of August.

Although children’s centres themselves provide just 1% of funded early education places for three and four-year-olds, they can help to identify and support families who otherwise would be unlikely to take advantage of early childhood services. In particular, children’s centres often encourage eligible families to take up our offer of 15 hours a week of free early education for disadvantaged two-year-olds. Children’s centres also work closely with local providers, offering funded places for two-year-olds to four-year-olds to ensure that families who need that crucial extra support receive it.

I am pleased that outcomes for children are improving. Early years foundation stage profile results show that, in 2016, 81.6% of children achieved at least the expected level in communication and language, compared with 72.2% in 2013. More children are achieving a good level of development by the age of five, and the gap between disadvantaged children and others continues to narrow, from 19 percentage points in 2013 to 17.3 percentage points in 2015-16. That is encouraging news and I am determined to make further progress.

The quality of early education is hugely important. In December 2016, 93% of providers on the early years register were judged by Ofsted to be good or outstanding. As of January 2016, most two-year-olds benefiting from free early education were doing so in a high-quality setting. We also know that we need to invest in the dedicated people who are responsible for delivering early years education and care including, I suspect, those represented by the organisation that the hon. Member for Huddersfield referred to, which is in his constituency. Earlier this year, we published our early years workforce strategy to help employers to support, attract, retain and develop staff to deliver-high quality provision.

I have a few moments to comment on some of the points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon referred to the previous commitment to consult on the future of children’s centre services, of which I am aware. The Government are committed to ensuring that all children, regardless of background, get the best possible start in life. I will consider carefully whether we can take additional steps. Indeed, the debate has fed into my thoughts.

The hon. Lady mentioned the closure of Sure Start children’s centres. Children’s centres have an important role to play in tackling disadvantage, but it is for councils to decide the best solutions for their area. Some councils are merging centres to deliver services more efficiently. Where councils decide to close a children’s centre, they must demonstrate first that children and families, and particularly the most disadvantaged children and families, will not be adversely affected. Secondly, they must demonstrate that they still meet the duty to have sufficient children’s centres to meet local need.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon for raising the incredibly important issue of tackling inequality. This Government have made a substantial financial investment in the early years and we want to ensure that it works for everyone, including the most disadvantaged.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.