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Children’s Education Recovery and Childcare Costs

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 7 June 2022

I must inform the House that the amendment has not been selected. I call the shadow Secretary of State for Education.

I beg to move,

That this House notes it is a year since the resignation of the Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins; condemns the Government’s continued failure in that time to deliver an ambitious plan for children’s recovery, including supporting their mental health and wellbeing; is concerned that the inadequate attention being paid to childcare, both for the youngest children and around the school day, is allowing the attainment gap to widen and costs to soar for parents at a time when there is significant pressure on household finances; and calls on the Government to match Labour’s ambitious plan for children’s recovery, including measures to keep childcare costs down for parents while the cost of living crisis continues.

Children’s voices are rarely heard in this place, but today I want to put them right at the centre of our discussions. With half-term over, I want to wish the very best of luck to all of the young people sitting exams this week and in the weeks to come. They deserve all of our good wishes, but they deserve far more than that. They deserve to be at the heart of how we think about our country and how we think about the Britain we want to build.

The last two and a half years have been an extraordinary time for all of us—for families, and for schools, colleges, nurseries and universities. I pay tribute to the staff right across the education sector, including teaching assistants, university lecturers, school caretakers, admin staff, childminders, catering staff, everyone who teaches in our schools and colleges, headteachers and nursery workers. So many people deserve recognition, and all parents know it, so I place on record again Labour’s thanks to them for all that they have done.

It has also been an extraordinary and challenging time for our children. After all, they only get one childhood, and although experts have lined up to tell the Conservative party how much it matters to put in place a recovery plan for their education and wellbeing—not just for their learning now, but for their futures—still this Government are failing them. That failure and neglect are even clearer today when the Education Secretary cannot even be bothered to turn up to debate the action we need to secure our children’s futures. He can spend endless hours touring broadcast studios, praising his lawbreaking boss, who has lost the trust of the British people and his own Back Benchers, but he cannot find time to be here with us today to debate how our children recover from the greatest disruption to their learning and lives in peacetime.

It is just over a year since the Prime Minister’s own expert adviser, Sir Kevan Collins, resigned from his post as education recovery commissioner. Sir Kevan’s own words on why he felt that necessary were sadly prophetic:

“A half-hearted approach risks failing hundreds of thousands of pupils.”

He went on to say:

“The support announced so far does not come close to meeting the scale of the challenge and is why I have no option but to resign.”

That is exactly what happened. Sir Kevan repeated his warnings after the autumn Budget, describing the continued lack of an ambitious plan for our children as “incredibly disappointing” and warning that the “meagre measures” the Education Secretary could squeeze out of the Chancellor were a “false economy” that would cost our country dearly in the long term. That warning has been echoed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Education Policy Institute, front-line teachers, parents and so many others. The Education Secretary is fond of telling us that he has been “studying the evidence” but when are Ministers going to start acting on it?

Does my hon. Friend agree that the lack of funding for education under this Conservative Government started long before covid came along? Funding in my schools on average is down by 6.3% since 2014-15. Does not that show that it is not just covid—this Government have consistently been cutting our children’s education?

My hon. Friend is completely right. We have seen year-on-year, real-terms funding cuts per pupil over the last 12 years. I find it incredible that Ministers expect some degree of gratitude for rolling back funding to 2010 levels by 2024-25—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) has something to say, I would welcome hearing it.

That is very generous of the hon. Gentleman—very generous indeed. I am sure we will all be waiting eagerly to hear his contribution.

Let us not forget how important education recovery should be to the Government, and how much it matters to children, to families and to their futures, to our economy, to our country and to all our futures. Almost 2 million of our youngest children have never known a school year uninterrupted by covid. Students sitting their GCSEs this summer lost around one in four days of face-to-face teaching in year 10. Parents, headteachers and nursery managers who I met across the country told me about delays to children’s speech and language development, about how children struggle to use a knife and fork, about a loss of confidence in our young people, and about their frustrations at being unable to get children the help and support they so desperately need. They have also warned, as has Ofsted, about the explosion in mental health conditions among our young people. At national level, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has been clear that failing to support our children’s recovery now will cost the economy an estimated £300 billion. What bar for evidence do those warnings not meet? Who else needs to tell the Government about the crisis our children face before they finally cotton on? What more reasons do Ministers need to act to protect our children’s futures?

The Government have failed our children. We see in the behaviour of Ministers a heady blend of three distinct approaches to the responsibility of Government. Sometimes they do nothing, or sometimes they do not turn up. Sometimes they actively make things worse and sometimes they belatedly accept that the Opposition are right, but not before families and children have paid the price for their pride. The first two sadly dominate their approach to our children. It has been a pattern throughout recent years. Time and again they have treated our children as an afterthought. We saw that when the support that children needed to learn at home was delayed, and when exams were thrown into chaos for not one year, but two. We saw it over 18 long months of inaction on school ventilation. We saw it when Government Members voted to let our children go hungry during the holidays and—perhaps most powerfully—we saw it when pubs were reopened before our schools.

We saw it in the winter when the Government did nothing for months, even after suppliers warned that the national tutoring programme was at risk of catastrophic failure, and we saw it this spring when we discovered that the Conservatives’ lack of interest in our children’s outcomes had gone so far as to pay tutors to sit in empty classrooms. We saw it in March when I asked the Secretary of State whether he believed that the delivery of the national tutoring programme had been a success. Even he was unable to provide a simple yes. He knows that it has been a disaster and he is not even here to defend it. We see it now as millions of secondary school students face exams without any support to recover the learning that they have lost.

I remind the House that, if we had followed the Leader of the Opposition’s advice, children would have been out of school for even longer. The Government have put £5 billion into catch-up costs for teachers, schools and pupils. From the shadow Secretary of State’s magic money tree, how much is the Labour party committing, compared with that £5 billion, in its manifesto?

I must pick up the hon. Gentleman on his first point, which, I am afraid, is simply not right. It is just not accurate, but we know that the Government have a habit of this kind of thing. On children’s recovery, I suggest that he looks at the work that the Government commissioned by Sir Kevan Collins, who we can all, right across the House, recognise as an expert in this. The long-term damage to our economy and the costs that our country will face if we fail to get this right now is £300 billion—that is the hit. I assure him that everything that we have set out has been fully costed and I will happily send him a copy.

If my hon. Friend would like to find a way to find the £500 million needed on catch-up for children in our schools—not that she needs my suggestions—she could look at the Chancellor giving £800 to people who own two properties. If that was not happening, it would raise £660 million.

My hon. Friend raises an important point, not least because, throughout the pandemic, we saw vast quantities—billions of pounds—of Government waste, with personal protective equipment literally burnt because the Government had failed to deliver what was necessary. Money was lost to fraud and money was lost in waste. We take our responsibilities on public spending incredibly seriously.

Perhaps another pot of money for the Government to look at is how every pound spent in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on tax fraud delivers £16 back. If the Government were really serious about raising some extra money for important issues such as our children, perhaps they could look at tax fraud, which they seem to be quite ignorant of at the moment.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that, as with all these things, it is a question of political priorities. A Labour Government would have prioritised our children’s recovery from the pandemic. They would have been at the heart of what we needed to see as we started to rebuild our country. That is what we would have delivered from government.

I will take the hon. Lady back to the closure of schools during lockdown. We now know that that had a profound impact on many children, for a host of reasons. I know that the Secretary of State has said that, in hindsight, the way it was done was perhaps not the right thing to do. First, does she agree with that? Secondly, does she agree that schools should become part of our essential national infrastructure so that we do not close them again should an unfortunate pandemic happen again?

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman and I appreciate the expertise that he brings to these issues. He raises an important point about how we plan for the future and look at what worked during the pandemic and what needs to be done differently. I am glad that the inquiry into our covid response will now consider issues around children and schools. That is right and important.

I have a significant degree of sympathy for the very difficult decisions that Ministers faced right at the start of the pandemic when confronted with an unknown virus. We can all remember how terrifying that was; I think it was the right decision when Ministers acted in the way they did. What I find inexcusable, however, is that, from that point, there was no proper plan to get our children back to school as quickly as possible—to use all available methods to do that as safely as possible. I find it incomprehensible that we still do not have a proper plan, but I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need to ensure that, in the event that we see such a terrible situation again, our children are put first. I am afraid to say that they were not during this pandemic.

We see this as schools face eyewatering costs for their energy. A primary school on Merseyside recently contacted me with its electricity bills from April last year and April this year. For April 2021, its electricity bill was £1,514. For April 2022, its electricity bill was £8,145—a rise of more than 400%. Where are the Government, as those costs soar and our schools need help to protect children’s learning from rising crisis, to ensure that energy bills are not being paid by cutting back on staff, activities and summer trips, and the quality of children’s school lunches? Nowhere. Again and again, we see a Government not leading the way but leaving schools to work out 100 different solutions on their own.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. She mentioned school meals. Does she agree that it is a disgrace that only 4p—four pennies—has been spent in terms of an increase on school meals per portion since 2014?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is incredibly important that all our children receive healthy nutritious meals while at school, but also through the holidays. We know so many families are under significant pressure at the moment.

The Government are not just failing our children at school. They are failing our families, not merely through months of inaction but through conscious choices, time and again, to make life harder still for working people. It took five months for the Chancellor to come to this House and set out the windfall tax for which Labour had been calling all that time—five months when families were forking out £53 million a day. Let us not forget that the wider cost of living crisis we face today is a crisis made worse in Downing Street: income tax thresholds frozen, council tax up, national insurance up, petrol costs through the roof, food prices soaring and universal credit support slashed. Again and again, when the Chancellor wants to raise money, he has reached for the pockets of working people.

I have been hoping that the Chancellor’s change of heart on the windfall tax might be an omen that the Education Secretary and his Minister might start to heed some of our calls. I cannot but welcome, for example, the Government’s belated conversion to the belief that headteachers in our schools, rather than executives and overseas HR firms, are best placed to ensure children get the tutoring they need. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made that point last summer, when she raised our concerns that the national tutoring programme was being taken out of the hands of education experts and given to a multinational HR company. She asked the Secretary of State and his predecessor whether they were happy with the contract and could provide assurances that it was not a cost-cutting exercise to the detriment of our children’s learning. Those assurances could not be given and the contract has failed. At the current rate of progress, all secondary school pupils will have left school by the time his Government deliver the 100 million tutoring hours promised.

The reason the Government veer to and fro from inaction and impoverishment to political larceny, with the Education Secretary cherry-picking his evidence, is because they lack any sense of purpose. As one of the Minister’s colleagues said yesterday, the Government lack a sense of mission. They have a majority, but not a plan. Not only does the Secretary of State lack a vision of what growing up in this country should be like, but he lacks a vision of what going to school in this country should mean. That is clear from the way he and his Government have treated our children since the start of the pandemic and the absence of ambition for their futures. It is clear from the lack of care given to the soaring cost of childcare and it is clear from the way they propose to treat our schools.

Taking our children first, as Government should, and as Labour does, children’s education has been through three phases during the pandemic. First, when schools closed in March 2020, we asked for daily updates, for information on support for home learning and on how free school meals would be delivered, and the evidence underpinning the Government’s decision making. We wanted to know there was a plan. Sadly, as the National Audit Office found, there was none. Secondly, when it came to school reopening, we made suggestions. We called for ventilation and for nightingale classrooms. We put forward ideas and demanded a plan. Once more, no plan. Thirdly, when we needed a plan for children’s recovery and their futures, what we got was a hollowed out, cut-price offer that is failing our children.

Labour has set out a very clear plan for how we would support children’s recovery. We would match, not temper, the ambition of our young people. If there were a Labour Government right now, there would be breakfast clubs and new activities for every child: more sport, music, drama and book clubs to boost time for children to learn, play and socialise after so many months away from their friends. There would be quality mental health support in every school, answering the plea of parents and teachers to get professional support to young people now. There would be small group tutoring for all who need it, with trust put in schools to deliver from the start, and ongoing training and development for school staff, because we know that investing in our children’s learning means investing in our education profession, too. And there would be targeted investment so that teachers and lecturers can provide extra support to the children and young people who need it most. Critically, our plan would increase the early years pupil premium more than fourfold to drive up the quality of early education and keep costs down for parents.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to tackle inequalities is to invest in early years? I have first-hand experience of how Sure Start centres made a significant impact on families and children, particularly in marginalised and disadvantaged areas. Does she agree that the Government need to do much more to invest in early years on the scale that Labour invested?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The last Labour Government transformed early years—we put it first and made it an absolute priority—and I assure her that the next Labour Government will do the same again. Early years childcare and education in this country is too often unaffordable, unavailable and inaccessible.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the IFS a few times. Is she aware that IFS research last month found that only four in 10 parents of pre-school-aged children had even heard of tax-free childcare and that 40% of families who qualify did not apply because of the Government’s “confusing eligibility rules”? Does she agree that in the middle of the worst cost of living crisis on record and rocketing childcare costs, the Government have let children down? The Minister has to explain what he is doing to address these failures to deliver affordable childcare.

My hon. Friend has consistently campaigned on issues around childcare over many years and I am grateful to her. She is exactly right to raise those concerns, as well as the work that she did in exposing how the Government knowingly and deliberately underfunded the early years entitlement—the 30-hour offer—to parents. I pay tribute to her for that.

The Government are failing parents and children alike, because it is during the first few years that the attainment gap opens up for our children. It is also the first chance to step in and support the children and families who need it. We all see the difference that early support makes—when it happens and when it does not. In power, Labour acted decisively to support families and children, tackle the disadvantage and close the gap. A generation grew up with children’s centres. A generation such as mine were supported after 16 with the education maintenance allowance. I saw in my community the difference that those changes made. I see it in the lives of young people who grew up with that advantage, with the support that it unlocked. Some 20 years later, the evidence around attainment and early intervention is clearer and stronger than it was even then, yet the Government have been almost silent. Even before covid, children on free school meals were arriving at school five months behind their peers. That gap is set to grow. It is utterly shameful in Britain in 2022 and a damning indictment of the Government’s 12 years in power.

Right now, our children are being failed again in this cost of living crisis. When parents cannot afford to feed their kids, children are being failed. When parents cannot afford to take their kids out for the day and cannot afford an ice cream at the park or a ride at the fair, children are being failed. When mams and dads do not see their kids in the evening or at the weekend because they are working every hour that God sends to pay the bills, children are being failed. When parents skimp on food and are exhausted, without time and energy to spend with their kids, children are being failed. And when the cost of childcare, not just for two to four-year-olds but from the end of maternity leave to the start of secondary school—I am talking about parents being able to choose whether to go back to work; affordable breakfast clubs; after-school activities so parents do not have to rush back for 3 o’clock pick-ups; after-school clubs costing more than women’s median wages; and parents paying over the odds for each hour of childcare, because the Conservatives decided that the Government would not pay the going rate for the places they promised—is quite literally pricing people out of parenting, children and families are being failed. That failure is not just about the individual kids and the individual families failed by this Government, although there are millions of them and that is bad enough. Our whole country is failed when we let our children down.

This Government have no plan, no ideas, no vision and no sense of responsibility to our children and their future—the rhetoric of evidence, but no reality. We have responsibility, ambition and determination for our children. We would deliver the plan that children need now, because education is all about opportunity—the opportunities that we give all our children to explore and develop, to achieve and thrive, and to have a happy and healthy childhood. Through a broad and enriching curriculum and education, we can foster a love of learning that stays with them throughout their lives, turning our young people into the scientists, musicians, entrepreneurs, sportspeople and, yes, perhaps even the politicians of the future, generating ideas and innovation that we cannot even dream of.

Education can transform every life, just as it transformed mine. Growing up, we did not always have it easy, but I know that in many ways I was very lucky: I had a family in which I was supported and encouraged to read and where education was valued. I was lucky to attend a great local state school at a time when the last Labour Government were transforming education across our country. My teachers were fiercely ambitious for me and my friends because they believed in the value and worth of every single one of us. I want every child in every school, in every corner of this country, to benefit from a brilliant education, supported by a Government who are ambitious for their future. That is why we would make private schools pay their fair share—not to tilt the system, as the Secretary of State claims, but to support every child across our great state schools to realise their ambitions.

Today the Minister has a choice. He could stand up and deliver a speech that I suspect we have heard a couple of times before, he could continue the hollow attacks on the last Labour Government, despite no child today having been at school when we were in office—or he could stand up and, like the Chancellor, admit that the Government got it wrong. He could say that they should have acted sooner, but that they will act now to match at last the ambition of Labour’s children’s recovery plan and put our children and their future first.

I join the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) in wishing all the best to those who are sitting their exams in the coming weeks. It is very good news that those exams are going ahead, and that so far they seem to be going well. I also join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to all in the teaching profession and all who work in our schools to enable teaching. It was a real pleasure to take part in Thank a Teacher Day a few weeks ago and visit schools up and down the country that are supporting pupils well.

We all came into politics to help people to plot a path to a better life. Members will not be surprised to learn that I believe that one of the most effective means to achieve that is a good education. Nothing is more important to a child’s future than their education: a good education helps to ensure that all children can fulfil their potential. We are committed to making childcare more affordable and accessible to support parents, as well as providing children with the best start in life.

Education recovery remains a top priority for the Government: it is a key part of building back better, levelling up and making sure that we are ready and skilled for a future in which the next generation can prosper. Helping our children to recover from the impact of the pandemic is one of the Government’s key priorities, so we have committed nearly £5 billion to fund an ambitious and comprehensive recovery package investing in what we know works: teacher training, tutoring and extra education opportunities. It is absolutely right that our support is especially focused on helping those who need it most, including the most disadvantaged, the most vulnerable and those with the least time left in education, wherever they live.

Of the £5 billion, what proportion will be swallowed up by the inflation in costs of energy for schools, rather than being spent on teachers?

The answer is none, because the £5 billion for recovery is on top of the additional funding that we are putting into schools: the £4 billion coming in for this academic year and the £7 billion over the course of the spending review period. The £5 billion is a targeted intervention specifically for recovery. I will break it down in a little more detail. It includes £1.5 billion for tutoring in schools and colleges, with which we will provide 100 million hours of tuition for five to 19-year-olds by 2024.[Official Report, 27 June 2022, Vol. 717, c. 1MC.] That is backed by extensive evidence that small group tutoring is one of the most effective tools to support learning and accelerate pupil progress.

I will in a moment.

More than half a million courses have been started by pupils across England, and regionally, the north-west, Yorkshire and the Humber, the north-east and the midlands are leading the way with the highest proportions of participating schools. Now I give way to the hon. Lady.

I thank the Minister, who is always very generous. If he is looking for something that actually works and has an extremely strong evidence base, I hope he will note that, according to evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation, oracy has a greater impact on children’s progress than extending the school day, small group tutoring, or any of the other elements that he has mentioned in connection with the £5 billion. It was disappointing not to see it included in the schools White Paper, and I hope he will revisit the evidence, because if he wants to use something that works, here is something that is ready to go—“oven-ready”, one might say.

We believe that oracy is very important as part of an overall strategy supporting literacy, language and development in schools. As the hon. Lady will know, our package includes specific interventions in early language development. However, I have engaged and will continue to engage with her in the oracy all-party parliamentary group, which she chairs.

We have listened to feedback on tutoring, and next year we will allocate all tutoring funding directly to schools, improving the programme’s simplicity and flexibility. Great teaching transforms children’s life chances, and we know that great teachers are not born but made. That is why we are investing more than £250 million of additional funds to help provide 500,000 teacher-training opportunities through initial teacher training, the early career framework, and our new suite of national professional qualifications. Supporting teachers, including headteachers, throughout their careers is fundamental to delivering the best outcomes for children.

I thank the Minister for outlining the measures that the Government are taking. When I was a special adviser at the Department for Education, we were constantly hearing from members of the profession about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining good teachers to continue educational attainment through primary and secondary schools. The £3,000 levelling-up premium that has been announced is a vital tool in that regard, but what else can be done to ensure that more good teachers enter the system?

My hon. Friend is right. It may have been during his time in the Department that it ceased to focus purely on recruitment, and pivoted to focus on retention as well. That was an important intervention and an important change. While the levelling-up premium is indeed a valuable tool in targeting support at the areas where it is most needed, we also need to look at our approach to teachers’ workloads, given that the work done before the pandemic managed to reduce unnecessary workloads. We need to look at our wellbeing charter, and we need to look across the board at how we can support teachers. The investment in national professional qualifications, supporting teachers who are mid-career and on their way towards leadership, is a new initiative which the Government have pioneered to ensure that we are investing in members of the workforce not just at the start of their careers, but throughout them.

The Minister is being very generous with his time.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) made a good point about recruitment and retention. Can the Minister tell us a bit more about what he is doing specifically to support the retention of these vital public servants, and, in particular, what he is doing to deal with the loss of teachers in high-cost areas? In the area that I represent, in Berkshire, housing and rental prices are very high, but teachers do not receive any extra compensation for that, certainly in Reading, and many heads are concerned about the drift of teachers away from our area.

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. Our reforms of the funding formula to ensure that schools are funded according to the cohorts that they serve and according to their activity are an important element in responding to it, although of course they will take time to come through. However, it is also important that we look at retention more broadly. As I have said, the Department has recognised that in its move towards a recruitment and retention strategy rather than just focusing on recruitment as it traditionally did. I hope that the funds that we are putting into schools this year—a £4 billion, or 7%, increase—will allow them to deliver good pay rises, and will help with teacher retention. Work with the School Teachers’ Review Body is ongoing on that front.

Extra time is part of our strategy, and we are increasing the number of hours in 16-to-19 education by 40 per student per year from September 2022. In our schools White Paper we set an expectation that all mainstream state-funded schools should deliver at least a 32.5-hour week, supporting our ambition for 90% of primary school children to achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030, and in secondary schools for the national GCSE average grade in both English language and maths to rise from 4.5 in 2019 to 5 in 2030. The parent pledge set out in the schools White Paper further supports these aims by making clear the Government’s vision that any child who falls behind in English or maths will receive the right evidence-based, targeted support to get them back on track.

I am sure the House will agree that the earliest years are the most crucial stage of child development. We know that attending early education supports children’s social and emotional development and lays the foundation for lifelong learning, as well as supporting their long-term prospects. That is why it is so important that we address the impact that covid-19 has had on the youngest children’s social and personal skills as well as on their literacy and numeracy. On top of spending £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on early education entitlements, we are investing up to £180 million of recovery support in the early years sector.

We will build a stronger, more expert workforce, enabling settings to deliver high-quality teaching and helping to address the impact of the pandemic. This includes up to £153 million in evidence-based professional development for early years practitioners—for example, supporting up to 5,000 staff and child minders to become special educational needs co-ordinators and training up to 10,000 more staff to support children in language and communication, maths, and personal, social and emotional development. That includes up to £17 million for the Nuffield early language intervention to improve the speech and language skills of children in reception classes.

Over 11,000 primary schools, representing two thirds of all primary schools, have signed up, reaching an estimated 90,000 children and up to £10 million is included for a second phase of the early years professional development programme in the current academic year, supporting early years staff in settings to work with disadvantaged children.

The Minister reels off a lot of statistics, but the most important factor he has acknowledged is how important the early years are. He mentioned levelling up earlier, but the one issue that the Government seem consistently to fail to recognise is the impact that child poverty has on a child’s life chances and opportunities. Will the Government acknowledge that without tackling child poverty—which is on the rise, with a third of children living in poverty in my region in the north-east—any effort to invest in later stages education will be undermined, and that they need to tackle child poverty first?

Of course the hon. Lady is right in saying that we have to grow the economy and drive up prosperity in order to support children everywhere; I think that is something we can all agree on across the House. We need to make sure that we are targeting support towards the disadvantaged, and I have already set out that we are. Of course, more broadly we all want to see a stronger economy, and education can play a key part in that.

I want to come on to the attainment gap, which has been mentioned, but I will give way one more time.

I thank the Minister for giving way. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) makes is apposite because we know that the vast majority of families picking up on the tax credits to be able to use early years are from wealthy households, and that a lot of families are being priced out of early years childcare because of the cost. I am sure the Minister would agree that the fact that nearly £2.8 billion-worth of tax credits were unclaimed last year is a problem; if there is a subsidy for childcare, we should encourage parents to take it up.

Does the Minister understand how perplexing the situation is? If it was a priority for the Government, we would see them investing in telling parents about it. For example, the Government spent £35 million on adverts about Brexit in last year, but they have spent £150,000 in total on telling parents where they can get tax credits to cover the cost of childcare. Does he understand the concern about that disparity, and what is he going to do about it?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. We do want to see better take-up of the offers coming in, and the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), has been working hard on that. Perhaps he will say a bit more about it in his closing remarks, but I recognise the issue. Of course, we also provide a lot of direct funding to the disadvantaged through the two-year-old offer, as I think the hon. Lady will recognise.

We know that the covid pandemic has caused considerable disruption to the education of our nation’s children and young people. Evidence shows that that has been significant for all people, in particular the disadvantaged, reversing the years of progress we had seen in closing the attainment gap. The gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers had narrowed, both at primary and secondary levels, between 2011 and 2019, following the introduction of the pupil premium. Despite the impact of covid-19, the latest pupil progress data published at the end of March 2022 shows that we are now seeing good progress for many pupils, but we know that certain groups and age groups need more help.

Since 2021, the additional gaps in attainment created by the pandemic appear to have reduced in primary maths and secondary reading. Evidence shows that, on average, primary pupils recovered around two thirds of progress lost due to the pandemic in reading and around half the progress lost in maths. To mitigate the impact on secondary pupils in key stage 3, we committed to doubling the rate of the recovery premium for secondary schools for the next two academic years from 2022-23. That will help schools to deliver evidence-based approaches to support the most disadvantaged pupils, from small group support in reading and maths to summer schools.

We know that literacy is fundamental to children’s education. As mentioned in the schools White Paper, since 2010 the Government have placed the effective teaching of phonics at the heart of the curriculum, introducing the annual phonics screening check in 2012 for pupils at the end of year 1 and incorporating phonics into teacher standards.

It is great to hear an Opposition Member paying tribute to my predecessor.

In 2018 we launched a £26.3 million English hubs programme dedicated to improving the teaching of reading, with a focus on supporting children who are making the slowest progress. In 2019, 82% of pupils in year 1 met the expected standard in the phonics screening check compared with just 58% when the check was introduced in 2012.

Another Government initiative that helps academic performance, as well as the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of children, is the primary physical education and sport premium, which has been in play since 2013 at the cost of £320 million a year, going straight to primary schools. Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that it will continue into the next academic year? Will he go further in acknowledging the importance of great physical education as a habit for life, within our schools and beyond, by considering making physical education a core part of our curriculum?

My hon. Friend is extremely experienced in this space, and he is a great champion for physical education and young people. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, who will be closing the debate, is working closely with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and hopes to have news on this front before too long. I recognise the importance of these issues.

In 2021, we launched the £5 million accelerator fund for English as part of the Government’s education recovery package; the fund is targeted at 60 local authority districts identified as most in need of specialist intervention. To date, more than 430 schools have been provided with funding to adopt DFE-validated phonics schemes and the training to implement them successfully.

The Government continue to make sustained investment to support the most disadvantaged pupils to recover lost learning. Building on the flagship pupil premium worth £2.6 billion this year, the recovery premium provides an additional £1.3 billion over this and the next two academic years to help schools deliver evidence-based approaches that will boost progress for pupils with the most ground to make up.

Nearly 45% of children in my Birmingham, Hall Green constituency live in relative poverty—more than double the national average. An area of Sparkbrook in my constituency has the highest rate in the region, a staggering 67%. Many of these children come from families that are not in work, and other families rely on universal credit.

Given the cost of living crisis, stagnant wages and the cut to universal credit, this situation is bound to worsen significantly. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s current offer is not good enough for the 67% of children living in poverty? Is it not time for the Government to seriously consider expanding eligibility for free childcare, as well as increasing the total amount of free childcare available to families?

The hon. Gentleman raises some important points in what I might describe as an expanded intervention. We want to ensure that we target support at disadvantage, and I am trying to set out the detail of how we are doing that.

As I mentioned, from the next academic year we will maintain the primary rate and almost double the rate for eligible secondary school students, as they are further behind and have less time left in education to catch up. We have also extended the recovery premium to all pupils in special schools and alternative provision, not just to those who are eligible for the pupil premium, and we have doubled the primary and secondary rates for these pupils in recognition of the higher per pupil costs incurred.

This year, we have also published a new menu of approaches—

I will take the hon. Lady’s intervention in a moment, if I may finish this point first. As I was saying, this is making it easier for schools to identify and embed the most evidence-based, informed practices and interventions, which will have the greatest impact on disadvantaged pupil outcomes—

The hon. Lady mentioned the important work of the Education Endowment Foundation, and she is right to do so, because the EEF’s endowment, all those years ago, has proved very valuable for the sector. It has built an evidence base on which everybody, across parties and across different parts of the educational community, can agree.

One really important intervention we were able to confirm in our White Paper is the £100 million re-endowment of the EEF so that it can continue its work, making sure that initiatives such as the recovery premium and the pupil premium are as evidence-based and effective as possible. I am now going to take the intervention from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) because I promised to do so.

I thank the Minister for giving way. He talks about helping the most disadvantaged and about the pupil premium. Will he acknowledge that the pupil premium, which I am sure he will acknowledge was a Liberal Democrat policy delivered in coalition by us, has been cut in real terms since we left government and the Tories took over on their own—by £160 per secondary pupil and by £127 per primary pupil? Any recovery or catch-up premium is being swallowed up by all the inflationary costs, because the pupil premium has not kept up with inflation.

Pupil premium funding rates are increasing this year by 2.7%. They are reaching the highest level in cash terms that they have ever been, and that is a proud achievement. Yes, the pupil premium was agreed during the coalition Government, but we have continued to invest in and support it, and we have added the recovery premium on top of that.

I have a lot to say, so I am going to make a bit of progress now. I have taken an intervention from the hon. Lady already.

Regular attendance at school is also vital for children’s education, wellbeing and long-term development. Our priority is to maximise the number of children regularly attending school. We recognise that the lessons learned during the pandemic must help us to strengthen and improve the overall system, which is why we recently published guidance for schools, trusts and local authorities, setting out how we expect them to work together to improve attendance.

The Secretary of State has also established an alliance of national leaders from education, children’s social care and allied services, who have taken pledges to raise school attendance. That includes work by Rob Tarn, the chief executive officer of the Northern Education Trust, a multi-academy trust serving areas with high levels of disadvantage, to work with other trust leaders to identify and disseminate best practice. Alongside that, we are running a series of effective practice attendance training webinars, which have been accessed by more than 12,000 school staff so far. Our team of expert attendance advisers also continues to work closely with a number of multi-academy trusts and local authorities with high levels of persistent absence to review their current practice and develop plans to improve.

I am pleased to confirm that legislative measures to establish a registration system for children not in school were included as part of the Schools Bill introduced by Parliament on 11 May 2022, which is currently in the other place. These measures will help local authorities to ensure that all children are safe and receive a suitable education. Through our attendance action alliance, the Children’s Commissioner has also begun a review to understand more about children missing education, and where and why they may be falling through the gaps. She has consulted the alliance on her initial findings, but her review is ongoing.

We know that the worries that children and young people may have about their progress at school and how this affects their future are important factors in their wider wellbeing, and subject learning is part of what children and young people enjoy most about school. That is why the additional support we have put in place to ensure that children feel supported in their education, and on track with their learning and wider development, is so vital and integral to their mental wellbeing.

I wish to be clear that children and young people are not alone on this journey and the onus is not on them to catch up; it is something that the whole school and the whole education system is looking to achieve together. It is our priority to support education settings to do so. The things we are doing to support schools are reflected more widely in our schools White Paper.

We have provided specific support for teaching about mental health and wellbeing as part of health education. Taking part in enrichment and extra-curricular activities is well known to support children’s wellbeing, but we know that participation fell during the pandemic. The longer, richer school week that we are securing through the White Paper will help to ensure that all pupils have the chance to have a wide range of experiences, including in sport, music and the arts, and we are supporting the expansion of opportunities to take part in specific schemes such as the cadets and the Duke of Edinburgh award.

We are also updating our behaviour in schools guidance to support schools to create calm, safe and supportive environments, which are important to pupil mental health and wellbeing. The guidance recognises that reasonable and appropriate adjustments may need to be made for pupils and that schools may wish to ensure that their staff are trained on matters that may affect pupils’ behaviour, including special education needs, disability or mental health needs. The guidance also makes it clear that following a behaviour incident staff should take into account any contributing factors and whether a pupil has mental health needs, and consider what support is required.

I am grateful to the Minister for his time. In a very difficult incident in my constituency, a young boy was brutally stabbed—the Minister may well have come across the case some time ago. I have received from a retired teacher who used to be a local education authority adviser a fascinating suggestion that I wish to put the Minister: is it possible to include in personal, social, health and economic education warnings about knife crime, and education about its dangers and the combination of the threat of knife crime with social media, which happened in the tragic case in my constituency? It seems to me to be a worthy and important idea to explore. It is complicated so I would not expect the Minister to give an answer right now, but is he willing to write to me on this important matter?

I am happy to do that, and if it would be helpful, I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to follow up and talk through that case in a separate discussion, because it sounds like an important case.

To ensure that schools are able to put in place whole-school approaches to mental health and wellbeing, we are providing £10 million to extend senior mental health lead training to even more schools and colleges. That training will be available to two thirds of eligible settings by March 2023 and to all state schools and colleges by 2025.

The Government are expanding and transforming mental health services for all, with additional investment of £2.3 billion a year through the NHS long-term plan. As part of that work, we are funding mental health support teams to provide specific support, to make links to other health provision and to help to support school staff to deal with issues. Because of the £79 million boost to children and young people’s mental health support that was announced in 2021, some 2.4 million children and young people now have access to a mental health support team, and more teams are on the way, with numbers set to increase from 287 teams today to more than 500 by 2024.

I recognise that people throughout the country are worried about the impact of rising prices, with many households struggling to make their income stretch to cover the basics. Although we cannot insulate people from every part of cost rises, we are stepping up to provide support, as we did during the pandemic. This year alone, we are increasing core schools funding by £4 billion compared with 2021-22. That is a 7% per-pupil boost in cash terms that will help schools to meet the pressures that we know they face, especially in respect of energy costs and pay.

I recognise the strength of feeling when it comes to our childcare system. We want families to benefit from the childcare support they are entitled to, thereby saving them money and helping them to give their children the best start in life. I am proud to be part of a Government who have extended access to early education and childcare to millions of children and parents over the past decade.

In 2013, the Conservative-led coalition Government introduced 15 hours of free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds. So far, this has helped more than 1 million children to get a much-needed boost to their early education. To ensure that all children are ready for school, all three and four-year-old children continue to be eligible for 15 hours of free early education a week, and nine out of 10 took up the entitlement last year.

In 2017, the Conservative Government announced 30 hours of free childcare for working families, to save families up to £6,000 a year. Because of that, thousands of parents have been able to return to paid work or increase their hours, while saving thousands of pounds a year. We have also introduced tax-free childcare, which provides working parents with up to £2,000 of support to help with childcare costs for children under the age of 12. With universal credit, parents can claim back 85% of eligible childcare costs, compared with 70% under the old system.[Official Report, 27 June 2022, Vol. 717, c. 2MC.]

We invest a significant amount of funding in early education and childcare, including more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on early education entitlements for two, three and four-year-olds. In 2022-23, we have increased the hourly funding rates for all local authorities—by 21p per hour for the two-year-old entitlement and, for the vast majority of areas, by 17p per hour for the three and four-year-old entitlement.

Many parents listening to the debate might have a simple question for the Minister: what does he expect them to do with a child who is under the age of two, so that we do not see women in particular having to leave the workforce because no employer is going to wait two years for them to have childcare?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. As the parent of a nine-month-old, I definitely recognise the challenge. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, refers to the support that is available through tax-free childcare and universal credit, but of course we recognise the challenge. I have to say that I do not see anything in Labour’s plans that would fix it.

To support childcare for families with school-age children, the Government are investing more than £200 million a year in our holiday activities and food programme. The programme provides free holiday club places, with healthy meals, enriching activities and free childcare, to children from low-income families, benefiting their health, wellbeing and learning. Last summer, our programme funded free holiday places for, in total, more than 600,000 children and young people in England, including more than 495,000 children who were eligible for free school meals. That means that hundreds of thousands of children from low-income families are benefiting from healthy food and extracurricular activities, thereby helping to level up children’s educational outcomes, provide better nutrition and improve their wellbeing, behaviour and social skills.

The Government are continuing to invest more than £200 million a year in the holiday activities and food programme, with all 152 local authorities in England delivering the programme. We are also committed to continuing support for school breakfast clubs. The Department for Education is investing up to £24 million to continue its national school breakfast programme until July 2023. This funding will support up to 2,500 schools in disadvantaged areas, which means that thousands of children from lower-income families will be offered free nutritious breakfasts to better support their attainment, wellbeing and readiness to learn. The enrolment process is still open to schools that wish to sign up to the national school breakfast programme.

We recognise that we must ensure that childcare works the best it can for families’ lives now. The Government are committed to continuing to look for ways to improve the cost, choice and availability of childcare. With safety and quality at the heart, as a first step we will consult on ratio requirements by the summer to give providers more flexibility and autonomy to make decisions about their settings and the needs of their children. We will continue to work across Government to ensure that parents are given the information that they need to access support from tax-free childcare, universal credit, and other entitlements. We will actively consider how we can ensure a sufficient supply of childminders, giving more parents access to an affordable and flexible type of childcare, as well as creating further flexibilities to enable parents to be able to spend Government funding on childcare that best meets their need.

The Government are committed to helping families and giving every child the best start in life, and we back that with significant investment at the spending review. We are investing £695 million in the Supporting Families programme to provide targeted support to 300,000 of the most vulnerable families. We are also providing a further £600 million for activities and healthy food for children in the school holidays, and we are delivering on our manifesto commitment to champion family hubs. Family hubs bring together services for children of all ages. We will invest £302 million to transform Start for Life and support local authorities to create the network of family hubs in 75 local authorities across England.

I am proud of our record in supporting children and young people both before and during the pandemic. The Government have ensured that supporting our children and young people is at the heart of our recovery plans, with the latest evidence suggesting that real recovery is taking place. Those on the Labour Front Bench have no plan other than to keep promising more of other people’s money. Nowhere in their proposed plans are detailed costings of their proposed interventions on childcare. We will continue to follow the evidence and provide investment where it makes the greatest difference.

Order. Both Front-Bench speakers have been incredibly generous in taking interventions. Some of those interventions have been quite long, which has put a bit of pressure on time. That makes it even more important that we help each other out, so that I do not have to impose a time limit. The eight-minute limit has become a bit more like seven.

I am delighted that we are having this debate today, because, frankly, it is long overdue. Indeed, in the past couple of years, this place has debated wind turbines more than it has debated the future of childcare in this country. We can all make the jokes about hot air, but the reality is that our children deserve better.

I want to focus my remarks particularly on this question about childcare costs. According to the TUC, one in three parents with pre-school children are spending a third of their pay on childcare. The cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two—those children whom we do not seem to know what to do with—has risen £1,500 over the past five years. The honest truth is that these challenges are not about the pandemic. They pre-empted the pandemic; they have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Our childcare system is more dysfunctional than the Home Office. We have to ask ourselves what we can do to fix it. Having the debate is the first step. Again, I want to declare that I am a big fan of the “Derry Girls” and “Countdown”, but we have spent more time, particularly in the Queen’s Speech, thinking about privatising Channel 4 than we have about sorting out childcare.

Childcare in this country does not work for the children, especially if they are aged under two, because they do need more than a packet of crisps and a pint of coke during the school holidays. Parents face bills running to hundreds of pounds a week for at least the first two years, often pricing all but the wealthiest out of the workplace. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds feel the pinch most of all. They are already 11 months behind their peers when they start primary schools because many of them cannot be in childcare to get that early years learning that we all said is so important. We know that that has got worse during the pandemic, with 76% of schools reporting that that cohort of children—the children from the poorest backgrounds—needed additional support compared with the pre-pandemic cohorts.

Even when the Government do invest in childcare, it does not get any better, particularly if parents have a child who might need care during the school holidays. Parents are spending over £800 a year more for after-school care than they did in 2010, with the average family spending more on these activities than they do on their weekly shop. Little wonder that this childcare system does not work for parents or for employers, who are losing talent from our economy at a rate of knots. Some 40% of mothers have said that they had to work fewer hours than they would have liked because of childcare costs, and that figure rises to more than half of women in households on incomes of less than £50,000.

This weekend alone, we saw evidence of a jump of 13% in women aged 24 to 35 not working in the past 12 months. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out who those women are, but it does take a Government who want to prioritise families—I say families, because we know that dads are getting a raw deal too. The mums are disappearing and the dads cannot be there for their kids as they want to be either.

The uptake of paternity leave in this country has dropped to a 10-year low, with only one quarter of new dads choosing to take it. Let us be clear what they are taking: two weeks. Anybody who has had a new-born knows that it takes a lot longer than two weeks to work out what on earth to do with it. Just 27% of eligible fathers are taking up that offer of just two weeks’ paid leave, down from 170,000 in 2021, compared with 650,000 women who took maternity leave, although many of them then faced the discrimination of not being able to return to work. That is a loss of 100,000 men compared with those who took paternity leave in the previous year. The number is falling.

A separate study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed that more than three quarters of men feel there is a stigma to taking just those two weeks to care for their children, let alone asking for flexible working. Where does that stigma come from? I do not know. Maybe somebody could leave a note on my desk to tell me why caring for children and wanting to have a career is a bad thing.

Employers want to be able to offer these things, because employers and businesses are ahead of the Government here. They know that offering flexible working, helping families to work and have a career but also be able to care for their children, is one reason why many of their employees stay with them.

The current situation does not work for Government or those running nurseries—those heroes we all know who look after our children. National Day Nurseries Association data shows that the Government is the biggest purchaser of places, but they are frankly short-changing the industry hand over fist. Providers are making a loss of £2 an hour on every Government-funded child they take, forcing them to cut their margins, underinvest in staff and overcharge other families to try to make ends meet.

Even when childcare is subsidised, it does not work. The estimated shortfall in funding for a three or four-year-old is more than £2,000 a year, and it is nearly £895 a year for a two-year-old. Little wonder so many nurseries are going out of business and childcare is increasingly becoming an indulgence of the middle classes, rather than part of the infrastructure of an effective economy.

In this debate, it is parents who we do not hear from in this place most of all. I pay tribute to the amazing work that Joeli Brearley and Pregnant Then Screwed, and people such as Anna Whitehouse at Mother Pukka, are doing in giving a voice to real parents. These are genuine comments I have had in the past week alone:

“Nursery fees for two kids cancel out my whole wage. My employer is consistently in the top 10 global best employers (they are great) so if I can’t make it work, god knows how others do.”

“All my wage goes on childcare for two days a week, which works out at the same price as rent for a flat.”

“I’m a teaching assistant. My monthly nursery fee for 4 days a week is £300 more than my entire monthly salary—I’m lucky to have a supportive family who help me with some of the cost, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to work. I’m trying to complete my teaching degree, make a career for myself and support my child, but my god do this government make it so hard!”

“£1870 a month for 5 days a week for me to pay childcare to return to work. More than I earn!”

“This summer it’s going to be a nightmare trying to work and find affordable childcare for an 11-year-old, 5-year-old and 3-year-old.”

“I attempted to re-enter the workforce once my twins were in reception—I had to give up as there was no childcare provision during the summer holidays of 2021. I wasn’t expecting to still be at home when the children were 7.”

“No one warns you or helps you pay £2,400 per month in childcare so that you can go back to work. I’ve always been a career woman, so why should we have to choose?”

“I have returned to work 4 hours a week to fit around my partners working hours. If I returned to my normal hours I would take home less than £10 a day, minus the cost of petrol. Totally ridiculous that there is no help until the age of 3.”

“Cheapest nursery I found within walking distance of my flat was £1603 a month!”

“The worst thing about this is that it is seen as the status quo. A justification for pregnancy and parental discrimination. So we get hit twice. No career and blamed for it too. I now work freelance and when I was hired by a client in the same profession for private work, they had assumed I had left an office to start a family.”

The truth, though, is that those experiences are not the worst thing—the worst thing is that investing in childcare is not a loss leader; it is a benefit to our economy because of the increase in tax take, the lower universal credit that is paid, and the equality, prosperity and productivity it brings to us all. Free universal childcare from the end of parental leave to the start of school would bring £25 billion extra funding into the Exchequer through those factors. That would cover 90% of the additional cost outright. But instead of investing, we have a Government murmuring about trying to cut corners by tweaking childcare ratios. I say to the Minister—he and I have children of a similar age—that, if he wants to take five kids of that age at the same time, I will happily lend him mine so that we can see just how possible that is. Our economic competitors recognise that this is the wrong way round as well. Some people claim that they have higher ratios, but we already have higher staff to child ratios than other similar countries. We have 13 children for every staff member in pre-school compared with six children in Sweden and eight in the Netherlands.

As I said, there is money to spend on childcare, but this Government are not spending it. It is our money as taxpayers. Those tax credits could be a valuable part of helping parents to make ends meet when it comes to childcare. The Government are not telling people that they are entitled to tax credits, yet the Government got back £2.8 billion alone last year in unclaimed childcare tax credits. If the Minister needs people behind him to go to the Treasury to demand that money back, I am with him, because that money alone would pay for 500 million hours of childcare as a first step towards having a universal system. But I do not hear any evidence that the Department is going to claim our tax money back so that our children can have that childcare.

The truth is that we cannot solve the cost of living crisis without solving the cost of childcare. We cannot have a productive economy unless every single talented person can make the right choice for their family about working life. A party cannot claim to be the party of the family when it is abandoning particularly mums but dads too. The Minister knows that he could have support to do this, but we need it to be a priority, even more so than saving “Derry Girls” and putting up the wind turbines.

I warmly thank the teachers, teaching assistants and support staff of schools across the entirety of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. I also send my best wishes to the students on their upcoming GCSEs and A-levels. If they have worked hard enough, and I am sure they have, they will reap the rewards in the summer.

The Minister outlined a raft of figures—important figures, because a serious amount of money has gone into education, particularly to help with education recovery. Let us look at just a few examples. There is the £400 million going into equipment for remote education and the funding of £5 billion for the catch-up education recovery plan, which includes the £200 million a year holiday activities and food programme. That is a fantastic scheme that not only provides a meal for students on the day but makes sure that they have the physical and mental education that is so important to making sure that those who have free school meals, in particular, do not fall behind in the summer weeks; we know from the statistics that, on average, it is seven weeks once they start the academic year. Helping to bridge that gap is so important.

We have seen in the great city of Stoke-on-Trent the Minister for children and families, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), hear the call for a family hub. I am looking forward to rolling out family hubs across the city, particularly in Tunstall town hall. They will not only help parents, particularly those on low incomes, to get the support that they rightly deserve and make sure they give every child in their family the best start in life, but make sure that those young people get the early years education that is absolutely critical to a person’s future life chances.

On top of that, Stoke-on-Trent was awarded a priority education investment area, which means that we are going to see not only £30 million in additional funding, plus some more, coming to our area, but a new specialist 16-to-19 free school and more resources to ensure that the city of Stoke-on-Trent no longer lingers in the bottom 20% for educational outcomes and destinations.

In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we sadly face the statistic of being 7th worst for children going on to higher education. That is no fault of a Government but sometimes the fault of a system that does not have in place the support network for families to encourage a young person to take that big, important step; they may well be the first in their family or the first in a generation to take it.

I want quickly to talk about the holiday activities and food programme. We have the fantastic Hubb Foundation, led by the mighty Carol Shanahan OBE, who, as chair of Port Vale football club, saw that mighty club win the Wembley league two play-off final and had Robbie Williams for his home-coming concert at the weekend. With her fantastic team, also led by Adam Yates, a former professional footballer, she has supplied thousands of opportunities for activities during every single school holiday. The Minister for children and families was gracious enough to come to Stoke-on-Trent South and Stoke-on-Trent North to see those in action and to engage with Carol and Adam on the great work they are doing. On top of that, at a time of national need, they provided nearly half a million meals across the city of Stoke-on-Trent to children and their families while we were in lockdown. In 2021 alone, the foundation held 1,211 sessions, with 4,688 delivery hours, and provided 57,154 meals. That programme is a UK-leading holiday activity and food programme, and I hope that the Government will always recognise the fantastic work that is done in Stoke-on-Trent.

We also have the fantastic Charlie Rigby, from the Challenger Trust. Charlie has been working with local academy trusts such as the Alpha Academies Trust, led by Simon French. They have come up with a scheme where they will lock off £150 each year for all students on pupil premium. That will give those students the enrichment and extracurricular activities they rightly deserve and need, and, Minister, the trust is simply asking for an extra £600,000. We could then pilot the scheme further within the city of Stoke-on-Trent to extend it beyond those students with pupil premium and show the long-term benefit, as well as provide an extended school day, which the Department knows I am a huge supporter of.

I am also a big supporter of shortening the summer holiday to help those childcare costs. In a report I did with Onward, we estimated that that would save £266 each year to parents just in childcare costs, not including any salary loss from parents having to take time off work or no longer being able to be in work, as well as helping to prevent students from falling further behind, particularly those on free school meals. Those are the types of things we should be considering.

I appreciate that you want me to stick to time, Madam Deputy Speaker, so in summary, I heard the shadow Front Bencher and I do not recognise their picture of education. I spent eight and a half years in the classroom working in the state education sector, both in Birmingham and in London, and I loved every single minute of it. What I do not understand is why Labour Members are yet to answer questions about why they were anti-phonics for so long, why they were anti-Ofsted at the last general election in which they were elected, why they are anti-academies such as the fantastic Michaela Community School led by the brilliant Katharine Birbalsingh, and why they are anti-free school. Well, not all of them are. The hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) was a big fan of this Government providing a free school to the people of Radcliffe. I know he warmly welcomed it at the time, when he was on the Conservative Benches. I am sure that he continues to welcome it on every leaflet he has put out in his local area since.

It is great to see that the Government are rolling out that fantastic free school programme. We need far more. The Minister knows that I want to know when wave 15 is coming, and it had better be coming soon because I am desperate to make sure that we have a new 11-to-16 school in Stoke-on-Trent, particularly for the people of Ball Green and that area, which is not served locally enough by a decent secondary school. We need to see some of the best multi-academy trusts coming into the city of Stoke-on-Trent, such as Star Academies and the Northern Education Trust, and I hope that the Minister will assist me with that to ensure that we see the changes we need.

Ultimately, this is a Government who are taking education seriously. We know that if we get education right levelling up will be a true success and all the new jobs that we are creating across the country—including the nearly 2,000 that we have already created since 2019 just from this Government alone, as well as the 8,000 that Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which is Conservative-led, has created in the past six years—will be filled by Stokies, because they will get the best education. It is this Government who are taking them seriously.

Both you and I know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that academies were the policy milestone of a Labour Government, because we both had the opportunity to vote for them and see them introduced. So I suggest that we will take no lessons about academies from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis).

The Government repeatedly argue that the best way out of poverty is work, and I for one would never disagree with that. I would go further. I think it is morally important. It is important for health. It is important for people’s children to watch them go out to work. The rhetoric is only ever as strong as the practical reality, however, and that reality could not be clearer. Prohibitive childcare costs mean that ever more women are being priced out of the labour market and out of the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their children. As we have already been told, the average cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two has risen by almost £1,500 in five years, and 40% of mothers now say that they have to work fewer hours than they would like because of childcare costs.

Against that backdrop, I was delighted to take up an invitation from the Social Market Foundation to join a new cross-party commission on childcare, co-led by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). Our aim is to analyse the stark impact of poor childcare provision on wages and poverty, and to consider cross-party the changes that are desperately needed. Today’s debate is timely, as our first research was released this week and reveals that women who had a baby in 2010 have in the decade since missed out on a staggering £70,000 almost. That is not their costs, but the income they have lost relative to what would have happened if they had remained childless—£70,000.

But should we be surprised? The charity Pregnant Then Screwed found that more than a third of mothers who return to work make a financial loss or break even, and that 62% of parents said that their childcare costs were the same as their rent or mortgage. If they cannot afford the childcare costs of returning to work, or if those costs outweigh the salaries they would bring home, work simply does not pay—no matter how many times the rhetoric is repeated at the Dispatch Box.

Meanwhile, this weekend’s The Sunday Times revealed that Britain shamefully leads the way when it comes to net childcare costs, which represent 29% of income. That compares with 11% in France, 9% in Belgium and just 1% in Germany. We are statistically one of the most expensive countries in the world in which to raise children. The problem is getting worse: the reality is that the number of women aged 25 to 34 who are not working has jumped by 13% in the last year.

The cost to women, children and society is about more than money. It is about missed promotions and career progression for women who cannot afford to return to work. It is about the consequential worsening of gender inequality. It is about the lost learning and the widening of the attainment gap because of the unaffordable costs of before and after-school clubs. Meanwhile, according to the Women’s Budget Group, the cost to economic output of the 1.7 million women prevented from taking on more hours of paid work due to childcare issues is a mind-boggling £28.2 billion every single year.

The importance of the early years must never be underestimated, but how far this Government have fallen. Under the last Labour Government, education was so important that we said it three times—and our rhetoric matched the reality. Some 3,500 Sure Start centres were delivered on time and offered a place in every community for integrated care and services for children and their families.

The situation is clear: we know the importance of the early years. We know that parents are being priced out of childcare and that an increasing number of women are not returning to work because they simply cannot afford to. We know that we have a problem in the entire economy with people withdrawing from the employment market and that the consequential cost to society is extortionate. If only we had a Government who recognised the importance of affordable childcare as the solution that threads so many of society’s injustices together.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. We all have a calling as MPs, and I was driven to get involved by social mobility. I went to a school at the bottom of the league tables and I lost my father at an early age, and I have always recognised that if we get this area right—the things we have all been discussing; despite the partisan speech of the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), we are united on much of it—it can unlock potential and allow people to progress in life.

I have now served 23 years representing my community, initially with a Labour council and a Labour Government and now with a Conservative council and a Conservative Government, so I have seen both sides. Neither got it all right and neither got it all wrong, but the reality was that schools were built late under the Labour regime, and when we did get them, they were through the private finance initiative. They came with huge extra costs and were limited in their ability to meet changing demands, particularly when numbers increased.

Under our Government, we have delivered a swathe of new schools, including the new £23 million Great Western Academy—bizarrely opposed by one of the former Labour shadow Secretaries of State for Education—which is now full, and we are seeking to expand. This is making a difference to parents: 91% of parents in my constituency, in the top 10 in the country, are now able to secure their first choice school. What a contrast to when I used to have to go to public meetings to see the anguish and the anger of families who were being robbed of the opportunity to have the school they deserved to which to send their children.

As a big supporter of the free schools programme, I have some—I hope, constructive—asks. First, I think the welcome consolidation of multi-academy trusts helps with the pooling of resources, training, recruitment and career progression for teachers, but I think it should go further. When we consider large new school sites, we should look to consolidate the offerings, so that we do not just have traditional secondary schools, but perhaps have university technical college provision, grammar streams and special educational needs provision, which children can move through during their school life. Some children develop at different stages. They could stay on the same site, but move around. I have seen some examples of that on a smaller scale, and I think it has potential.

I also think, and Ministers will not be surprised by this, that when we award free school status, we must make sure we get the consultation right. There is an issue at the moment in that the schools provisionally awarded then carry out the consultation. We had a case in my constituency where a school was the only bidder at the time—a long time ago, before others came forward—and it decided to go against what the community, the elected representatives and the local authority wanted. It carried out its own consultation and, frankly, picked or cherry-picked which bits it wanted, and the regional schools commissioner was useless in trying to do anything about it. Our local community feels slighted by that, and we just hope that that will be reflected on and improved in the future.

I recognise that the two Ministers representing us today are fully over their briefs, thoughtful and, crucially, willing to engage. Both are parents, and I thought it was a bit of a bizarre comment earlier to say that not enough parents were speaking; I think probably most of us are parents. We have a four-week-old child who has been sleepless for a week, and I can confirm that I am definitely a parent on the back of that.

Turning to nurseries, I pay tribute to the Minister for children and families—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince)—who in his then new role came to visit Councillor Jo Morris, a director of a number of nurseries in my constituency, where he took the time to engage thoroughly with the challenges. Again, to be helpful, I have some asks, but I first wish, along with many other speakers, to pay tribute to the fantastic nurseries and the staff who, throughout covid, were able to keep the show on the road. It sometimes felt that they were the last ones standing, and as parents we were very grateful for what they were able to do.

My first ask is about the peculiar position whereby schools offering nursery provision do not pay business rates, yet traditional nurseries do so, although most of us would recognise that they are educational establishments. The nursery that the Minister visited pays £15,000 a year. It has about 100 children, so that equates to about £150 per child. In his supremely effective lobbying of the Chancellor, will the Minister please add that one to the list?

On the broader funding point, we all support the annual increases in the national living wage above inflation, but we must also recognise that nurseries, which predominantly rely on the free provision funded by the Government, have limited abilities to increase income, and that has to be taken into account. I know there are discussions and consultations about ratios, and there are other options such as qualified ratios, underpinned by strict conditions linked to Ofsted inspections. This is a particular challenge of recruitment, and when recruitment is a challenge at short notice, nurseries rely on agencies with very expensive costs, which impacts on their viability.

I welcome the Government’s investment in speech and language development and the catch-up post-covid, but could consideration be given to allowing nurseries also to bid for some of that money, on a case-by-case basis? Without having the expertise of fellow hon. Members and friends who were teachers in a former life, I suspect that doing some of that in nursery would make a significant difference. Again, it was highlighted to us post-covid that there was a direct impact on the speech of a generation of young children entering nurseries.

Finally, hon. Members will find no bigger fan than me of school holiday after-school provisions and the holiday activity fund, which I have pushed for in debates over years. Indeed, I brought Mark Draycott of Draycott Sports Camp to Parliament to meet the Secretary of State for Education, who was then in a former role in that Department. The holiday activity fund is a huge welcome relief for busy working parents—nothing fills busy parents with dread more than the thought of a long summer holiday and entertaining their children—and I want the Government to turbocharge it. We can do more with sharing best practice, because the scheme is still in its infancy, and that will help build capacity to provide greater local choice.

I also want the Government to consider one of my long-standing asks about the free use of school community and sports facilities for any community parent group that is putting on constructive activities for young children. That will predominantly be sport, but it could also be scouts, guides or other activities. It seems a bit bizarre that we ask volunteers to step forward, and then charge them for the privilege.

Finally, as we consider the cost of living, it would make a big difference if we followed the German model of spreading out term times region by region, so that we dampen down peak demand for school holidays, as that would save hard-working parents considerable amounts of money.

We have heard lots of Members saying how important children are, and I think we genuinely feel that across the Chamber, but how sparsely populated is the Chamber for this important debate? This is not the first time, as the Minister will recall from the last debate, that I have commented on how sparsely populated a debate is, particularly on the Government Benches. I am really disappointed. [Interruption.] The Conservative party has 350 MPs. Sadly, the Liberal Democrats has only 13, so proportionately there are far fewer. I am really disappointed that more people are not in the Chamber for this important debate.

If the hon. Gentleman is good at maths, perhaps he could work out that one out of 13 is a far higher percentage than whatever it is—six—out of 350.

With children and young people having disproportionately suffered the impact of pandemic restrictions, and the Government having scrimped and saved on supporting their recovery, millions of children across the country are bearing the brunt of the cost of living crisis that we face. They cannot be let down again, which I why I tabled an amendment to the motion about the provision of free school meals. It is utterly shocking that in one of the richest countries in the world, in April this year more than 2.6 million children were living in households that had experienced food insecurity in the past month, according to a YouGov poll commissioned by the Food Foundation. That was an increase of over 5% in the three months between January and April 2022. No child in the United Kingdom should be going hungry, let alone 2.6 million of them. That is why, given the cost of living crisis that we face, the Liberal Democrats are calling on the Government to extend free school meals to all children in primary education and to all those secondary school children whose families are in receipt of universal credit.

I am proud that the Liberal Democrats in government delivered universal free school meals for every child between the age of four and seven regardless of income. All the evidence shows that hunger has a severe negative impact on children’s mental health, with studies linking it to increased anxiety and stress in primary children—and we know that is off the charts at the moment. It was bad before the pandemic, and it is even worse now. International studies have also demonstrated the need for well-balanced meals, which many families are simply unable to afford, to ensure strong brain development. It is important for children’s wellbeing and for their learning, yet we know that increasingly cash-strapped families are struggling to put food on the table. The policy outlined in the amendment would give a much-needed boost to families who are really struggling to put food on the table every day and ensure that every single primary child and all disadvantaged pupils in secondary education get at least one decent, healthy, hot meal a day.

There are also the social benefits of children coming together and eating the same meals together at the same time without, say, parents opting out at the primary level—it is a really important social intervention as well as academically and for their wellbeing—but there are already reports that some school meal caterers are talking about cutting portion sizes to cover the costs of free school meals. As I pointed out to the Chancellor a couple of weeks ago—needless to say, he did not address my point and he did not seem to take much interest in how children are going hungry and will get hungrier—the Tory Government have increased funding by a measly 4p over the past seven years since universal infant free school meals were introduced by the Liberal Democrats in government in 2014. So, yes, that is 4p in those years, and food prices have risen by almost 6% in the last year alone, so is it any wonder that we are hearing about caterers having potentially to cut school meal portions?

My concern is that for schools already struggling to make ends meet with spiralling energy bills, insufficient catch-up funding, rising children’s mental health needs and food price inflation, we will see cuts to teaching assistants and other staff, and less money spent on books, computers and other essentials. That is especially true of schools in rural areas, which are disproportionately underfunded. Councillors in the south-west of England regularly point out to me the inequality of school funding in their region.

I urge the Minister to look at this area and ensure that children from lower-income backgrounds do not suffer academically and in their wellbeing because they are going hungry during the cost of living crisis. Will the Government please consider expanding the remit of free school meals beyond infants to the many other children who are struggling with hunger daily? Every child deserves to grow up happy and healthy regardless of their background.

I want to touch on childcare costs. I cannot better the speech by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), and the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) also made some important points. Here in the UK, we have the highest childcare costs in the world. We know that parents up and down the country are struggling to pay their childcare fees, and the crippling costs mean that many are unable to return to work. Earlier this year, Pregnant Then Screwed, which has been mentioned several times, did a survey of 27,000 parents and found that two thirds are paying more for their childcare than for their rent or mortgage. That is simply unsustainable for many households. That has resulted in 43% of mothers stating that they are considering leaving their job, and two in five said that they are working fewer hours than they want because of childcare costs. Some 80% of families who responded to the survey expect their childcare costs to increase in the next six months. That worry is backed up by research undertaken by the children’s charity, Coram.

The Government are trying to address the issue by looking at tweaking the ratios. Quite apart from all the safety issues thrown up by reducing the number of staff to children, if the Government think that the savings will be passed on by childcare providers to parents, they are living in another world. I have a three-year-old son and am absolutely delighted that I will not have to keep paying childcare costs after September, when he starts school. I pay for 27 hours of childcare a week. When he turned three, I thought, “Happy days! Apparently, I get 30 hours of free childcare, so I don’t have to pay for it anymore.” No: I am still paying at least half the bill I was paying before he turned three.

As many others have pointed out, the funding the Government give for those so-called free hours does not begin to cover childcare providers’ costs, particularly in London and particularly given that they are rising. It is a complete red herring when Ministers say, “We’re going to tweak the ratios and that will help to save money and provide more childcare.” Childcare providers cannot afford to pass that on.

I am in the fortunate position of being able to afford to still pay the £500 a month, as opposed to the £1,000 a month I was paying before, for 27 hours of childcare. Many families simply cannot afford that. I am also in the fortunate position of having an amazing husband who will stay at home and look after my son for two days a week; many families are simply not in that position. I urge the Government to address this issue head on and, instead of tinkering with ratios, look at offering a fair deal for parents in terms of quality childcare provision to give children the best start in life.

I could not possibly sit down, Madam Deputy Speaker, without saying a couple of words about children’s and young people’s mental health. Many in this Chamber will know that I have been banging on about that since the day I got elected two and a half years ago. We hear time and again from Ministers about how much they are doing to support children’s mental health, given the spiralling numbers. I give credit to the Government: they have put money into this area. The problem is that we are not necessarily seeing the impact on the ground. That is why I was so disappointed in the last Session when Conservative Members talked out my private Member’s Bill on presenting an annual report to Parliament on children’s mental health.

We have a fragmented system. We have some mental health support provision— we need far more at an early stage in the community and in schools—and then we have the NHS provision. The data is not joined up. It is sparse and patchy: we do not see what it translates to per head at a local level and we do not see granular detail of what some of the waiting times are for treatment at a local level. If we want to measure the impact of what the Government are doing and what we need to bridge the gap when children need to be suicidal before they get mental health support, we must measure and track far, far better the provision being put in place for our children.

It is important, when debating this issue, to avoid the risk we often run in this House of getting into an auction on spending figures. I very much commend Ministers for having focused not just on the totals of funding allocated, but on the policies designed to ensure, as is incredibly important at a time of rising living costs, that that money is going as far as possible.

I must, in my introduction, perhaps challenge a little the comments of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson). I certainly remember being in the room with David Laws—then Education Minister, and someone for whom I have a good deal of respect—when the free schools policy, of which my son is now a beneficiary at his primary school, was implemented under a Conservative-led coalition Government. It is important that we all recognise that there is good will on all sides towards achieving the outcomes we seek.

The figure for local authority expenditure in the most recent year for which it is available, the financial year to 2021, is £41.5 billion. That does not include local authority expenditure on children’s services that take place through academy schools. So, £41.5 billion is being spent on children’s services and maintained schools, and two thirds of that is on the education budget. And £41.5 billion is a lot in anybody’s money, so clearly it is right that the focus should be on how we spend that money best. We are sometimes at risk of talking about how the funding in the system is at the highest ever level, but the numbers of children in the system are also at an exceptionally high level. For most of our children, the numbers in the system drive expenditure rather than other areas of priority.

When we look at how things have been developing and where the Government are going, we see a welcome focus on not just totals, but outcomes. What is the money actually doing for the children we are seeking to spend it on? Opposition Members often talk about the Sure Start programme, on which more than £500 million was spent in the financial year that I referred to. However, one of the long-standing frustrations with Sure Start among people who spent time as an elected member in a local authority, as I did, was that the restrictions on it inhibited the benefits that it could deliver. The decision to shift that investment towards family hubs—to change the way in which that money was spent—is welcome, because it sees children in the context of their family and household and enables what we do for them to be greater for a given level of expenditure.

I will touch on a number of different aspects of the way that the money flows around the system, which is extremely important in considering how we best address the issues at the heart of this debate. When we look at what has been going on in the system with the money, it is important to recognise that according to those DFE figures—I reiterate that they apply only to local authority-maintained schools; the picture with academies is similar but covered by separate figures—we have seen an increase in the revenue balances held by schools, from £275 million to £379 million. The levels of deficits in maintained schools have gone down from £150 million to £128 million. The average balance held by maintained schools has risen to £160,000.

Those figures tell us that the system is extremely well resourced at the level of individual schools. That means that headteachers and school governors have the resources to deploy in the way that they know best, knowing the children and families that attend their setting. Interestingly, the figures also show that the only area of the system where there has not been an increase in the balances held is nursery settings. We need to recognise that a challenge remains in ensuring that the aspiration expressed for the national funding formula is reflected in the experience of those settings.

There has sometimes been a tendency to hide behind the fact that the money is allocated through local authority schools forums, but the reality is that the challenges that Members on both sides of the Chamber have outlined exist today. Much as I welcome the tax-free childcare policy for working families, which has been an enormous benefit to working households across the country—I should say that I am personally a beneficiary—we need to recognise that the Government are right to begin to look at such things as childcare ratios, because we must think about how the money that we are putting into the system can deliver the greatest service and the best possible outcomes for the children at which it is targeted.

The benefits of early education are often overlooked. We tend to talk about early education very much in the context of enabling parents to go to work, rather than what it does for children. The Early Intervention Foundation—a charity of which I was a trustee and which continues to do excellent work, funded by the Department, among others—highlighted that we can tell pretty accurately what a child’s key stage 5 results will be from their outcomes in the early years foundation stage. It is clear in the first years of life how a child’s progress—measured across the various outcome measures that that stage uses—will be reflected in their progress throughout life. That is a clear demonstration that what we do in the earliest years makes the biggest possible difference. I very much welcome the increased focus that seems to be coming from the Department on ensuring that that money is again spent in the best possible way.

It seems clear that all across the system, whether in nurseries or in schools, it is money allocated at local discretion that brings the best results for children. The feedback that I have had from headteachers across my constituency, where we are fortunate that almost all schools are either good or mostly outstanding, is that resources to enable catch-up at school level have added the most value.

The tutoring programme, ambitious and welcome though it was, has been less significant in transforming children’s outcomes than the school using resources in a way that reflects its local knowledge of the child and their family. The same is true of local authorities: they have seen a significant increase in expenditure, as we would expect in a system under pressure with more and more children, but it is with a level of local discretion, as outlined the Government’s approach, that we deliver the best possible outcomes.

Children with special educational needs and disabilities, who I know have been very much the focus of Ministers’ recent thinking, have often been most at risk in the context of the covid pandemic. They are at the heart of the recovery that we are talking about. They are also often the children who find it most difficult to access the childcare that they need, because small commercial and independent providers in particular struggle to recruit, train and retain staff who have the skills to provide specialist support where it is required. The role that local authorities will continue to play, including as convenors of multi-academy trusts under the Schools Bill, demonstrates that the Department for Education and its Ministers are listening. They recognise the challenges and see where things need to go.

I will finish where I started: £41.5 billion in local authority expenditure on children’s services and maintained schools, plus the expenditure on academy schools, is a lot of money by anybody’s way of counting. It seems to me that we must step back from the attempt at an auction of promises and focus on doing what Conservatives in government do best: making sure that we deliver value for money and outcomes for our children.

When we look at which developed countries have the highest cost of childcare, the UK always comes close to the top of the list. We know that parents are feeling it, as we have heard today. The Petitions Committee, which I chair, has debated the issue at some length in response to calls for an independent review of childcare funding. As the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) said, we should not have an auction of promises. This should not be a party political issue; it needs to be properly looked at in the round.

The comments that we received from petitioners were quite depressing, but sadly not surprising. One response to our survey said:

“My wages will just about cover our childcare costs, therefore I am basically working only to ‘hold my place’ until my baby is old enough not to need childcare i.e. once she starts school.”

Another commented:

“I do not have the option to have family or friends look after my child when I return to work and I can’t afford to not be in work, but childcare costs more than my mortgage for full time hours.”

We all know that the spiralling cost of childcare is a worry for many parents amid the cost of living crisis, but the impact on new mothers is particularly troubling. Decisions that women make in that very short period have a huge effect on their earnings for the rest of their life. That has a direct impact on the gender pay gap, or what many might call the child pay gap.

The International Labour Office has found that in the UK, the pay gap between mothers with two children and non-mothers is 25% across their lifetime. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that by the time a woman’s first child is 12 years old, her hourly pay rate is 33% behind a man’s. That is appalling, but we can hardly be shocked when our childcare system is not only one of the most expensive in the world, but assumes that most families do not need any help with childcare costs until their child reaches the age of three. Support is poorly targeted, and it is letting families down.

Unfortunately, there are worrying signs that some problems for new mothers are getting worse. The Times recently reported that in the past few months, the trend of women staying in work has stalled, so we are now seeing an increase in new mums dropping out of the workplace, many of them for good. Furthermore, about 29% of women who are not working say that it is because they need to look after their families, compared with about 7% of men. The figure has risen by 5% in the past year alone. It is the first sustained increase in 30 years, and it is incredibly troubling. Some of this may be due to covid and changes in lifestyle patterns, but the increase is most pronounced among women aged between 25 and 34. It feels as though the clock is ticking backwards for women.

Women may make the decision not to work for various reasons. It is their right to make that choice, and the choice should be supported. But what about those for whom it is not a choice—those who simply cannot afford the childcare, and who give up their jobs as a result? What about the women who work three jobs and barely get to see their children, because that is the only way they can put food on the table once they have paid for their childcare costs? The cost of a part-time nursery place for a child under two has risen by a staggering 59% since 2010, which is totally out of sync with the changes in general prices and average earnings.

There is so much evidence to show that the Government’s own policies are driving up childcare prices. The free hours are of course extremely welcome to those who receive them once their child turns three, but in providing funding at a level that they know is inadequate, the Government are forcing providers to cross-subsidise by making non-funded hours even more expensive. This is robbing Peter to pay Paul, and it is mothers who are losing out as a result.

We need a childcare system that not only helps to make the lives of parents and their children better, but helps to make our economy work. We cannot stand by while it becomes too expensive for mothers to work, so that women are forced back into the home for the sake of those few precious years, out of sheer economic necessity. Early years childcare and support is as essential for parents to get to work as the roads and the rail network, and it provides a great many benefits beyond that. Until we approach it as the vital infrastructure that it clearly is, we will continue, as a country, to let down women, families, and our whole economy.

You will be glad to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I intend to keep my remarks short.

Let me begin by thanking all those working in childcare support in Bolton and across the country, following what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). I especially thank all the staff at Eagley School House Nursery in Bromley Cross, run by Julie Robinson, who, when it comes to this issue, is a leader not only in my constituency but throughout the United Kingdom. I also thank those at Queensbrook Children’s Nursery in Halliwell and Bolton School in Chorley New Road, which I visited very recently. When visiting those nurseries, especially during the pandemic, I have often heard from staff who feel that they have not been loved enough by the general public—among others—although they are providing an exceptional service, and I want to put on record my gratitude for the support that they have given my constituents.

What, then, are the Government doing? Conservative Members, including the Minister, have mentioned quite a few things today, including the offer of free childcare to every three and four-year-old, giving millions of children the best possible start in life, which has had a positive impact on more than 1.21 million children. The Government have also provided free childcare so that more than 124,000 two-year-olds, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can receive a good early education. They have cut the cost of childcare for 458,000 children through our tax-free childcare offer. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) mentioned the £14 million that we have already committed to family hubs, in addition to the £20 million to support the 10 new ones.

In the last few days, I have been reading through the Action for Children report, which makes incredibly interesting reading. I notice that my next-door neighbour, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), is in the Chamber today. When the Government continue to focus on the levelling-up agenda, Bolton will be one of the top 10 local authorities to benefit from such an agenda, and the investment through public services will help to bring over 8,000 children out of poverty and give them better life chances.

Just to finish, I would like to say happy birthday to my daughter Brannagh, who is in the Public Gallery and who turns four today. She is dressed like a little princess, and a princess she is, of course. She was not very happy this morning when I sang “Happy Birthday” at 8 am, but everyone here will be happy to know that we are banned from singing “Happy Birthday” in the Chamber. And with that, I shall finish.

It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan). That was a lovely story about his daughter, and I wish her a happy birthday. I hope the whole family enjoys a wonderful day out in central London.

It is also an absolute pleasure to speak today in this important debate and I hope that we will have further opportunities to debate education, which is such a central issue for our country. I would like to speak in support of the motion, but before I start I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the education professionals in the country, including teachers, support staff and people working in colleges, higher education and the childcare sector, as well as those, like some in my own family, who work in delivering apprenticeships.

I am keen to focus on a few key points because I realise that time is pressing. The first is the fundamental importance for any country of investing in education. The second is the scale of the issues we face following the pandemic. Some of these have been addressed by other colleagues, but I would like to address them a little further. The third is the need for the Government to raise their sense of ambition in this important area, and the fourth is the need for a much more robust and deliverable strategy.

First, turning to the overall importance of education, it is great to see cross-party agreement on this important and central area of Government work. In my opinion, it is an absolute first-order necessity for any Government, in any country in the world, to invest in the future of their people. While it is acknowledged across the House that that is fundamental, I believe we need to think quite deeply about what that actually means, based on our own experience in this country and on international comparisons, because some of it is a little bit challenging for some of our colleagues.

The evidence base from around the world and from recent British history shows clearly that investment over time ultimately means better-paid teachers—whether people are in favour of that or not, the evidence shows that to be the case—and it also means investing in resources such as better school buildings and better labs for teaching science, as well as better provision of other forms of resource to help teaching, whether that is technology or other forms of resource such as school trips or school sports. These things all add up. Unfortunately, they are all expensive, but they are investments and they should be seen not as short-term costs to the public but as a long-term investment in our future as a country, in our economy, in our people and in our aspirations as a society.

We can see this in some of the achievements in recent times. Programmes such as the London Challenge are an example. At one point, London schools were seen by many commentators as being in a really difficult place, but determined investment, with central Government funding the resources, working in close partnership with schools, teachers, parents and local communities, drove up standards in London despite all the challenges. There are numerous other examples. Some time ago, we saw the literacy and numeracy strategy introduced by David Blunkett when he was the new Secretary of State for Education.

The investment in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—subjects is another example. The way that STEM has been championed and the growing number of young people studying A-levels in maths, science and technology is a national success that predates the current Government. It is something we should all be proud of, and it should be seen as a long-term investment in this country’s future. It should not be a party political issue, but we should be honest about the resources needed. These examples are seen in jurisdictions around the world—in US states, in individual cities and in European and Asian countries—where exactly the same process is under way. Governments are determined to invest in education because they believe in their country’s children and their country’s future.

Sadly we have faced the most awful setback to those aspirations because of the pandemic, and it is worth reflecting on how awful it was. It has been wonderful, a real pleasure, to see people out in the streets again over the past few days, yet things were so different only a few months ago. These are anecdotes, but I still find it hard to think back to the Zoom meetings in which parents had to scurry off to offer a rudimentary education to their children, with the support of online resources. We should remember the difficulties experienced by young people who had to sit public exams for the first time. That is the scale of the challenge we face. It is not an insignificant challenge, and we should not underestimate how difficult it is for our schools and universities.

We need a focused strategy that is up to the scale of the challenge. Kevan Collins is a respected educationist who worked with the Government and their Liberal Democrat and Conservative predecessors for years when he was at the Education Endowment Foundation. He has a very strong academic background and is respected across the education profession, but a year ago, sadly, the only thing he was able to do was resign, because he felt so strongly about the lack of resources targeted at the problem I have described. I hope there is all-party appreciation of what it means for a senior public servant to take such action. I am sure he would have loved not to resign. He wanted to lead programmes to improve the quality of education in this country, but he was left with no choice.

We need a proper strategy, and we need to think about why Kevan Collins left. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), is a committed chap, and I hope he will look at this again. The Government need to think about the strategy, invest significant amounts of money—far more than currently planned—and focus on what actually works. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) clearly illustrated the principles that should be considered but sadly are not.

To make matters worse, it is appalling when we contrast and compare the Government’s spending on education with their spending on other things, such as the poor-quality spending on PPE, which was often not procured effectively or in line with Government procurement rules, or the Chancellor’s recent failure to focus money where it is most needed to fully address to cost of living crisis. He gave handouts to people with second homes, which I am sure they welcome but is not an effective use of public money.

I would like Ministers to look at this again and to think carefully about what a good strategy might look like. I would argue that a good strategy has the appropriate funding, is school-led and is built on best practice. We have heard a lot of talk about best practice, but international success is based on best practice. There is widespread agreement and consensus on what that might be.

We also need to work with parents. We have heard about the importance of breakfast clubs, early years education and other forms of support—the success of the education maintenance allowance has been mentioned —in providing practical support to families who are currently squeezed. There is emerging evidence on things like targeted funding, continuing professional development for teachers, small-group tutoring and oracy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) mentioned. All of this should be in the Government’s strategy, but sadly it is not.

I appreciate time is at a premium, so I will sum up. It has been a pleasure to speak today, and it is wonderful that we are debating such an important issue. I hope the House will find more time for debate, and I hope the Government will address this issue and offer education greater priority in their thinking. Education seems to be a big gap in Government policy at the moment. It is almost as if education has been forgotten, but it is vital and should be the first duty of any Government.

I hope Members will now confine themselves to about six minutes. I am quite sure you can all do the arithmetic, and it is important that we have time for the Minister and the shadow Minister to reply to the debate.

Every day, tens of thousands of working parents across the country are being failed by inadequate childcare policies that leave families financially crippled, stagnating in their careers and desperate for radical change. Families are being let down by Ministers, who are simply not doing enough. Indeed, in June 2021 the Government’s own education recovery adviser, Sir Kevan Collins, resigned in protest at the Government’s failure to support children’s recovery.

The average price of a full-time nursery place for a one-year-old child is a staggering £14,000, and one in three parents spend more than a third of their entire income on childcare. More often than not, it is families on the lowest incomes or on universal credit, single parents and those with disabilities who suffer the most.

Labour’s Sure Start scheme aimed to help people and was very successful. It supported working families with childcare. Naturally, the Conservative coalition cut its funding by two thirds, despite the policy’s success. One in three parents with a household income of less than £20,000 have had to cut back on essential food or housing as a direct result of childcare costs. A staggering 92% of parents said that the cost of childcare had affected their standard of living because the cost was completely unaffordable and had resulted in a substantial impact on them.

It is not as if the nurseries and childcare workers themselves are the ones benefiting from this. Research by the National Day Nurseries Association found that 95% of nurseries in England did not even have enough funding to cover their basic costs after the impact of the covid pandemic on their incomes. Now, in the midst of a cost of living crisis, nursery finances will be squeezed even more by the rise in national insurance and the cost of heating and electricity bills. Nurseries such as Grosvenor nursery in my constituency are fighting for survival because of serious funding shortages caused by the disparity between funding and overhead and staffing costs, not to mention the large deficit created by the pandemic. In a recent visit last year, I saw at first hand the hard work that its staff and management do in nurturing our future generations This crisis is only going to get worse as more and more childcare providers go out of business, increasing demand for places and pushing prices even higher for families struggling with the rising cost of living.

Until recently, Government underfunding was one of the main reasons nurseries were going out of business, but now we are seeing more nurseries unable to open because of a recruitment crisis, with demoralised staff leaving the profession in droves. Part of the reason for that of course is that wages for early years staff are embarrassingly low. May I remind the Minister that these are people we trust and hand our children over to, to look after? Many of them are on the national living wage, which is not enough for them to survive on, bearing in mind the work that they are doing. Nursery workers do not just play with our children; they are preparing them for school, and helping in their development and with their educational opportunities.

The first 1,000 days of any child’s life are crucial to their development and their life chances. People working in early years care are crucial to this and should be paid fairly as a result. That is even more important for disadvantaged children. Being in early education is one of the most important things that can help to close the gap for them. Lower-income parents will be forced to withdraw their children, who have the most to gain from not being a year behind their peers when they start school.

Childcare has not only been neglected; it has been deliberately starved of funding, and has forced parents—many mothers—out of work and into poverty. Labour would introduce breakfast clubs, and support children in sporting and social activities to broaden their horizons. We would give children access to a counsellor to support their mental health and we would introduce an education recovery premium to prevent children from falling behind.

I remind the House that Nelson Mandela once famously said:

“The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.”

I have to say that the Government’s neglect of childcare is pushing us deeply into this. Finally, I would like to wish Brannagh Logan a happy birthday, bearing in mind that she is the daughter of my constituency neighbour.

I join in wishing Brannagh a happy birthday—I hope she has a lovely day.

I wish to start by talking about the points I made in my intervention on the importance of oracy. The Government talk an awful lot about the importance of being evidence-led. The evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation is conclusive on the importance of oracy. It is a shame that the Minister for School Standards is not here right now, because I was slightly concerned that in his response he seemed to be talking about oracy in relation just to the early years, whereas good oracy education needs to be continued throughout the early years, all the way through primary school and on into secondary school.

Through the all-party parliamentary group on oracy, I was recently able to invite some wonderful year 6 pupils from Cubitt Town Junior School in Tower Hamlets to show off their oracy skills. They were absolutely outstanding. Their confidence, the way they spoke to the different adults in the room and the way they articulated everything they had gone through was incredibly impressive. It was even more impressive given the fact that they were children from one of the most deprived areas in the country. Many of the pupils at the school are pupil premium children and some of them have English as an additional language. Despite all the barriers, they have overcome them through sustained and explicit oracy teaching.

It is not just me or the Education Endowment Foundation saying this: Ofsted is saying it as well. In its report on its English review, published on 23 May, Ofsted talks about the importance of oracy—in fact, a whole section is dedicated to it. It says that

“a strong command of the spoken word is a crucial outcome of English education. The benefits of spoken language extend beyond just success at school. Becoming an articulate, effective communicator forms the basis of democratic engagement within wider society.”

Ofsted goes on to say:

“Opportunities for pupils to develop their proficiency in spoken language require explicit teaching”.

I really wanted the Minister for School Standards to hear that point about explicit teaching. Too many people think that skills in oracy are developed through osmosis by just being in an environment. We are talking about explicit teaching. According to Ofsted, those opportunities

“require explicit teaching of the knowledge, for example vocabulary, and ideas necessary for effective communication. These opportunities should be planned carefully, both in English lessons and across other subjects.”

So we are talking about the explicit teaching of oracy. In my opinion, and that of the APPG, oracy teaching should be as explicit as the teaching of reading and writing. Reading, writing and oracy are the three pillars that should underpin all English education.

My hon. Friends have already made for me the points in my speech about how expensive childcare is, so the House will be pleased to hear that I am not going to repeat them all now, but it is worth pointing out that net childcare payments in the UK account for 29% of average income. That is clearly unsustainable and cannot be allowed to continue. Why is the cost so shockingly high? Is it because wages are too low? Is it because childcare costs are too high? It is probably a mix of both.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made an excellent point about the number of women who are—I hate the phrase—economically inactive because they are unable to go out to work because of the cost of childcare. I recently shared something to do with the cost of childcare on my social media and there were nearly 200 comments under it. I would like to share with the Minister a couple of the points that were made.

One commenter gave the childcare provider’s point of view. They said:

“If the government wants it to work they have to increase the amount that childcare providers get. Currently that is a national lottery. Some providers get most of the funding rate, some providers get about half, as their”—

local authority—

“keeps a large proportion. There are early years providers all over the country closing their doors as they just can’t make it work. Even those that are committee run, not-for-profit and that just take funded 3 and 4 year olds still can’t make it work.

On top of that there’s a massive staffing crisis in early years. Settings are shutting left, right and centre. Many providers, including me, are having to reduce the age range and numbers we care for because we can’t attract qualified staff. There’s a massive national shortage. We would love to pay our fabulous staff more but the funding rates are just too low.”

The hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) made a thoughtful speech. The only point on which I disagree with him is about the childcare ratio. I used to work in children’s nurseries before I trained as a teacher: believe me, if someone has more than two or three two-year-olds, they have their hands full. We should think seriously about the ratio. It is also worth thinking about how things work in a nursery when we look at the ratio of adults to children, because often one of the adults might be doing nappies, another might be feeding and another might be playing with the children, so the ratio can be higher during the time the adult is physically with the number of children, because it is to do with the number of adults and children in the building. I warn against trying to change that as a way to reduce costs.

I want to conclude by quoting what a constituent told me about her difficulty paying for childcare. She said

“I work full-time with a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. I’m an early years teacher, so see the struggles of many parents with regard to childcare. My 2-year-old is in nursery for ONLY 3 mornings and this costs us around £400 each month. My 5-year-old is in school, but we have to pay breakfast club and after-school club fees. This is another £150 plus per term. Myself and my partner work full-time, and keeping up with payments is a massive struggle. We rely heavily on my mum who is in her 60s and also works, which is a huge strain on her. I think working parents need more support for children under 3.”

I completely agree with my constituent. I do hope that the Government will not put pride in front of accepting Labour’s plan for education recovery and the free breakfast and after-school clubs that would make a great difference to many working families.

The title of today’s debate is “Children’s education recovery”, but it should actually be “The economy’s recovery” because we know that investment in education is the key to productivity gain. We also know that, with the unemployment rate at 3.8%, the crisis in skills and the crisis that so many employers are facing, if we could solve the childcare problem, we will go a long way towards helping out in many of our workplaces.

One crisis that the Government have been dealing with in “backlog” Britain in the past week has been what is going on in our airports. How many of those airport jobs were done by women who now cannot be in those jobs because of the childcare crisis and the cost of it?

We know that, in March, two leading organisations for women, Pregnant Then Screwed and Mumsnet, conducted big surveys into the impact of childcare costs. My hon. Friends the Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) have mentioned the impact of expensive childcare. We know that 62% of parents say that the cost of childcare is the same or more than their rent or mortgage. In a high-value area such as Hornsey and Wood Green, this can be prohibitive in terms of returning to work. We know that the figure is even higher for black and Asian families, at 71%, and 73% of parents who work full-time say that the cost of childcare is the same or more than their rent or mortgage. Ninety-nine per cent. of respondents said that childcare costs are making the cost of living crisis even more challenging. Forty-three per cent. of mothers say that the cost of childcare has made them consider leaving their job and 7% have quit altogether. How is it possible that it is cheaper for mums to stay at home than to work?

We know that work is a key driver for general wellbeing—or it can be in a high-quality work environment. We know that it is the Governments around the globe who are child friendly and in favour of more women in the workplace who end up having more productive and innovative workplaces, so it is a real driver for the economy.

We know from the same survey that has been mentioned a number of times in this debate that 76% of women who do not have children have said that childcare costs are a major factor in why they have not started a family. This goes to the heart of Government and planning in that we do want to encourage families to have children. We will end up having lower and lower fertility rates, which will have a knock-on effect on the economy in the long term.

We know that childcare pays for itself. The Canadian Government found that, for every $1 they invested in childcare, there was a return of $1.50 to $2.80. They described it as the hat trick of jobs and growth and subsidising childcare in the whole of Canada. It would be worth while if the Government looked at that example.

However, instead of investment in childcare, we see in the UK today a big sticking plaster, hoping the problem will go away. What assessment has been made of the approach under the taxation model? That is simply not being taken up to the degree that it needs to be. It seems to be a bit of a gimmick which only a very small number of women are taking up.

A constituent wrote to me to say that the policy is

“bad for staff, bad for children’s mental health, safety and general wellbeing.”

She has asked me personally to push the Government not to

“risk the lives, happiness and education of our children”

by getting the childcare approach wrong.

The Government appear to have no plan, no ambition and no vision for our children or the long-term future for our families. For years, they have been turning a blind eye to this crisis and, in the meantime, generations of young people are being utterly failed. We are living in a low-growth economy. The Government need to wake up to the role that investing in education will play to increase that productivity. Affordable childcare could enable women to go back to work, knowing that their children are receiving the best start in life. The Government should stop tweaking those ratios; it will put even more parents off using childcare if they think it will not be a good start in life for their children.

We know that a decent early years education has a major impact on child development. Education is one of the most powerful means of overcoming disadvantage. Even the Duchess of Cambridge has said this:

“What we experience in the early years, from conception to the age of five, shapes the developing brain, which is why positive physical, emotional and cognitive development during this period is so crucial.”

That is my contribution to the jubilee celebrations. We know that a properly invested-in childcare sector is good for parents and crucial for our children’s recovery after the pandemic.

Children have suffered throughout the pandemic in so many ways. Many have lost loved ones, and all of them have been through the same stresses and tensions as the adult population. Research published by the Education Endowment Foundation found:

“For many children the experience of lockdown was made harder by cramped living conditions, no access to green spaces, parental mental health difficulties and financial hardship.”

Young people have had to deal with restrictions on their lives and on their opportunities to develop social skills.

The lack of opportunities for social interaction has meant that the children of the pandemic have had a very different start in life from what would usually be the case. They have missed out on the fun of making friends, playing together and growing together. Those are important experiences for children, so it comes as no surprise that recent research by Parentkind found that mental health and wellbeing is now a major priority for nearly nine in 10 parents. We must ensure that education policy and the way schools operate support that priority. We must put children’s happiness and wellbeing at the forefront of all decision making about the education children receive.

Of course, a child is far more likely to do well if they are enjoying their learning. I recently visited Woodchurch Church of England primary school in my constituency, one of just six primary schools in the country to have been selected to take part in the “Life-Changing Libraries” initiative being run by BookTrust, which aims to develop a culture of reading for pleasure. BookTrust has provided funds that have been used to transform a space in a corridor into a magical reading environment, stocked with a specially curated book list of approximately 1,000 titles chosen by BookTrust’s expert team.

Talking to the staff, it is absolutely clear that the project is a real success. It is noticeable that there is so much enthusiasm for reading in the school, with children reading in the playground at break times and sharing books with each other. I ask the Minister to look at that scheme and beyond just the phonics that the Minister for School Standards’ opening speech focused on. Encouraging a love of reading in childhood reaps so many rewards, improving reading levels while engaging in the world beyond the immediate here and now. Every child should be given that opportunity. There is absolutely no need to test reading for pleasure; one just needs to create the environment for it and encourage an appetite for it.

That brings me on to the issue of testing. If we are serious about putting children’s wellbeing at the centre of their educational experience, it is time we took a long hard look at just how much we are testing them. There are numerous stories of parents worried sick that their children are being over-tested, and recent polling by Parentkind found that 80% of parents disagree that SATs provide parents with useful information about their child's achievement or progress in school.

The National Education Union has reported that pressure on teachers and children from cramming for SATs

“is extreme and school staff have very little time to deliver interesting, varied lessons, as they feel forced to ‘teach to the test’”.

Will the Government scrap SATs and put pupils’ wellbeing at the forefront of education policy?

There needs to be a proper look at the curriculum too, to ensure that all children have the opportunity to develop their creativity and are given the opportunity to study and engage in subjects such as art, music, drama and dance—I note the comments by the Minister for School Standards earlier. The OECD’s programme for international student assessment, known as PISA, measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. The OECD is introducing a creative thinking assessment to PISA in 2022 as an optional additional assessment. It is immensely disappointing that England has opted out of that, and I ask the Minister to explain why.

There are other things that the Government should be doing to improve children’s experience of education. They should reinstate the £20 uplift to universal credit, because we all know that children who are hungry struggle to learn, and that it is no good for children’s wellbeing when their parents are struggling to pay the bills. Ministers should get behind the “Right to Food” campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and end the scandal of hunger and foodbanks once and for all. The Government should also get rid of the two-child limit in universal credit that punishes families with more than two children. The Government have responsibility for the wellbeing of every child. They should give every child access to qualified in-school counselling staff, as Labour would do, to provide psychological support for children when and where they need it.

If we are to look after our children, we need to look after their teachers too. The Government cannot be getting it right when, as National Education Union research has shown, two thirds of teachers in state-funded schools in England feel stressed at least 60% of the time and over half of teachers say that their workload is either “unmanageable” or “unmanageable most of the time”. Education policy has to be about the wider social environment in which children are growing up. If we have a Conservative Government who are determined to destroy public services, as we do at the moment, then our children will suffer and their futures will suffer too.

The massive cuts inflicted on Wirral Council by central Government since 2010 have left the future of numerous libraries in my constituency hanging in the balance. A loss of libraries and of skilled librarians does a huge disservice to the children of our country. Those cuts, too, have put the future of Woodchurch leisure centre and swimming pool at risk. How are the children supposed to learn to swim if they do not have a leisure centre because of these cuts from central Government? The impact of cuts to public services on our communities cannot be overestimated. The Government are creating cultural deserts and opportunity deserts, and children will suffer as a result.

As children return from half-term to continue with exams and the cost of living crisis spirals, this debate speaks to the heart of concerns across this House and up and down the country.

I echo the tributes paid to the dedicated and committed staff in the education sector by Members in all parts of the House. We have heard in interventions and speeches specific mentions of individual staff, schools and other settings. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) paid particular tribute to nursery staff. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) recognised the efforts of teaching staff in schools and colleges. From school leaders to teaching assistants, catering staff to each and every teacher, I place on record our thanks to them all. They have stepped up for our children time and again, during the pandemic and since. Millions of those children will now be sitting exams and assessments for the first time since 2019. It is a credit to our young people that they are rising to this challenge after the unprecedented challenges they have faced: we are so proud of them all. But this Government have consistently let them down. Ministers’ miserable failure to help children to recover lost learning threatens to limit their opportunities.

We have heard that, again, in interventions and speeches today. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East spoke of investment in after-school clubs—something that Labour’s recovery plan would invest in—and partnerships such as the London Challenge under the previous Labour Government, which drove up outcomes for young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) made powerful points on oracy. I thank her for her work on the all-party parliamentary group on oracy in encouraging speaking skills at the heart of an education catch-up in schools. She also talked about the value of breakfast and after-school clubs.

As parents increasingly feel the pinch, this Government’s inaction is pricing families out of care for their children. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and other Members rightly praised the valuable work of Pregnant Then Screwed in lobbying for women and mothers. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) spoke of the raw deal on childcare that parents are getting from this Government and the importance of speaking up for parents. I thank her for so passionately doing so.

My hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made powerful speeches about how the costs of childcare in the UK compare with European countries, and the cost that that has for our country’s economic output. That is why Labour’s motion calls on Ministers to match our ambitious plan to help children to recover lost learning and keep childcare costs down. Despite the challenges that they face, parents are working to provide the very best for their children. Time and again this Conservative Government have made that task harder. While Ministers dither, Labour has proposed practical solutions to help children and families to thrive. It is time that this Government matched that ambition.

After the unprecedented disruption of the past two years, children must be at the centre of our plans for the future. We need a real education recovery from the pandemic that supports both children and teachers—not a gimmicky quick fix, but a recovery that is targeted, impactful and sustained, that is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day school and that is properly resourced, but there has been a complete absence of both leadership and ambition from this Government. Sir Kevan Collins’s plan was rejected out of hand by a Chancellor who told us that he had maxxed out on support for our children. It is now just over a year to the day since Sir Kevan resigned. At the time, he said that the Government’s plans were “too narrow” and “too small”, and would be delivered “too slowly.” His warnings have proved to be spot on.

The Government’s flagship national tutoring programme has failed children and it has failed taxpayers. The latest figures suggest that the Prime Minister’s blusterous target of 1 million hours of tutoring will not be met until all children currently at secondary school have left. Worse still, Ministers plan to pull out the rug from under schools that are working hard to deliver the scheme. Tapering funding will mean that schools will cover 90% of the cost within three years. With eye-watering energy bills and food and other day-to-day costs rising, there is a real possibility that schools will struggle to deliver the scheme. It is children in the classroom who will suffer.

As schools face the pinch, so too do families. Childcare is critical for learning and development, but it is also intrinsically linked to our wider economic prosperity. Pre-pandemic, children on free school meals arrived at school almost five months behind their peers. Spiralling costs will make that worse. The average cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two has risen by almost £1,500 over five years. In fact, the United Kingdom has one of the highest childcare costs as a proportion of average income, as we heard earlier. At 29%, we are 19% higher than the OECD average. That has perpetuated a gross inequality that is holding women back. Some 1.7 million are prevented from taking on more hours of paid work because of childcare costs and we lose £28.2 billion in economic output every year as a result. That contributes to the farcical situation in which young families’ income will be higher if they remain on universal credit than if they were both in work and paid for childcare. Of course, that is more punitive for single parents.

The Education Secretary likes to say that he is evidence-based and evidence-led, although there has been some debate about that recently, but what more does he need to see before acting? The latest bright idea, to cut the number of adults looking after groups of children, will likely reduce the quality of provision and have no impact on availability or affordability. After yesterday’s no confidence vote, I know that Ministers will be particularly concerned with numbers, but parents and children will tell them that this just does not add up.

In contrast, Labour’s children’s recovery plan means small-group tutoring for all who need it, breakfast clubs and activities for every child, quality mental health support for children in every school, professional development for teachers and targeted extra investment for those young people who struggled the most with lockdown. That is the action that we would take right now, and it includes investing in childcare places for young people on free school meals. Because we know that childcare pressures do not stop when children start school, we are investing in before and after-school clubs for children.

Every day, this Government are wasting time that children and families do not have. Yet there was nothing in the White Paper to combat that and nothing in the Schools Bill. This Government are happy to let children drift, with teachers and parents picking up the pieces time and time again. It is not inevitable that a generation of children should be held back by disruption to learning and spiralling costs. It is political choice made by this Government. Just as the previous Labour Government transformed education, we would do so again, working together with staff, parents and children. Labour would deliver a sustainable recovery for children’s education for more than a year, and we would insulate children and families from the Government’s cost of living crisis.

The choice for Ministers and the question for Back Benchers is once again clear. Will they finally admit that they have got it wrong and back our plans, or will they leave children as an afterthought once again? If they do not stand up for children and families, Labour will.

I welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government and I thank the many hon. Members who have made constructive and passionate contributions to the debate. I will try to respond to as many of the themes and issues raised as possible in the time available to me; there is much to respond to and so little time in which to do it.

As the Minister for School Standards said at the beginning of the debate, we are committed to making childcare more affordable and accessible, supporting parents and providing children with the best possible start in life. Recovery remains a priority for the Government. It is a key part of building back better, levelling up and making sure that we are ready and skilled for a future in which the next generation can prosper.

Opposition days are, by their nature, political and the Opposition are right—dare I say it—to push us to go further and faster, which is their job after all. I gently say to them, however, that there is not one Member of the House who does not want every child in this country to have a world-class education where they are given every opportunity to fulfil their potential. I have two young children and I want them and every single child in our country to have better life chances than we had, regardless of their background or where they live.

We all want more accessible, flexible and affordable childcare and early years education, with every child having the best possible start in life. We all want every single school to take a whole-school approach to mental wellbeing and to ensuring that the children and young people get the mental health support that they need when they need it.

I turn to hon. Members’ contributions, starting with early years and childcare, which have been raised the most. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan) in rightly thanking all those working in education, early years and childcare. I agree that the early years are often not recognised as much as they should be, which must change. Early years are very much educators and they improve life chances, so let me say from the Dispatch Box: “Thank you.” I cannot let the moment go without saying happy birthday to his daughter Brannagh—I thought it was Princess Elsa of Arendelle up in the Gallery, but I will “Let It Go”.

On early years, the hon. Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) raised the issue of childcare costs. They are passionate campaigners and advocates for change in this area, in which we need change. They are right to point out that there were challenges pre-pandemic that were exacerbated by the pandemic, and that we have to fix our childcare sector and market. They are right to focus on under-twos where the cost is often highest and on school holiday provision, which are certainly priorities for me.

I am certainly aware of the impact on women in particular, because we know that childcare costs fall disproportionately on women, which comes with family planning decisions; disproportionate costs and salary disparities; and women deciding not to work. That is an issue for business, because we are losing a huge talent pool across our country, not to mention the impact on our economy.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow was also right to mention paternity leave. I will certainly look into the stigma issue that she raised and I will raise flexible working with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I do not recognise her figures in relation to nursery and early years funding, which I will come on to in a moment. Let us not forget that, for under-twos and for three and four-year-olds, there is tax-free childcare and up to 85% of the cost is available for those on universal credit.

The hon. Lady was right to pay tribute to the campaigning group Pregnant Then Screwed. I have met with its representatives, I have heard what they have to say and I look forward to continuing to work with them. I cannot say that I agree with them on every single issue, but they raise some good points and there is no question but that change is required in this area.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden raised academies, and I agree that academies are excellent. She also said that work is the best route out of poverty, and I totally agree. I am sure that she welcomes the reality that far fewer children—in fact, hundreds of thousands fewer—are growing up in workless households. She was also right to focus on childcare. I understand that she is working cross-party to look closely at childcare costs more generally. I look forward to that committee’s recommendations.

The cost of breakfast and after-school clubs was raised, which is an important factor. The hon. Lady also raised Sure Start, but I have to say that that was not early years education. It did not often provide childcare, and when it did, it was private sector, but I may come on to Sure Start later.

May I make a suggestion to the Minister? There is a significant lack of uptake of so-called tax-free childcare. I say “so-called” tax-free childcare because it is not tax-free; it meets 20% of the cost up to a certain threshold. It could be that, in the desire to create the impression of cutting taxes, the Government have failed to explain to parents what the system actually is, and it may be that, in naming it for political purposes, it has lost its practical application. Perhaps the Government should look at giving a more honest label to the scheme.

I may not agree on that particular point, but where I do agree with the hon. Lady is that the take-up of tax-free childcare is far too low. I am looking very closely at that and at what more we can do as a Government to promote it. I would certainly encourage all Members from across the House to promote our childcare offer more generally, of which tax-free childcare is only one part.

More broadly on the point about childcare, I will say this: I have two young children, and I get it. They have both been through nurseries and childminders, and I understand the costs. I know that many parents up and down our country are paying as much, if not more, than their rent or their mortgage on childcare costs. We are very much committed to ensuring that all families get the support they need when they need it.

We are already supporting families and investing to support the cost of childcare. We are offering free childcare to every three and four-year-old—that is the 15 and then the 30-hour offer. We are providing free childcare to disadvantaged two-year-olds—that is the 15-hour offer. We are cutting the cost of childcare for working parents through our tax-free childcare offer, which I have just mentioned to the hon. Lady, and of course paying up to 85% of the childcare costs for those on universal credit, supporting the families who need it most. In total, that comes at a cost of £5.1 billion.

Obviously, “Frozen II” has many lessons that we all need to follow, but one is not just to “Let It Go” but to be truthful to yourself, so can the Minister clarify this? He said he did not agree with the figures I cited from the National Day Nurseries Association, which has been looking at the impact of the subsidy, but he has just said how much money it costs.

Obviously, many parents would say to him that 15 hours’ or indeed 30 hours’ free childcare is not the childcare they need in order to maintain their jobs. Is he saying that the Government believe that the money they are currently providing fully covers the cost of childcare? If he does not think there is a £2,000 differential between the cost of childcare for a three-year-old and what the Government are paying, what does he think the gap is?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I will come on in just one moment to exactly the funding we are putting into childcare. However, in total, it is £5.1 billion. On the free entitlements alone—the entitlements the hon. Lady references—it is £3.5 billion.

I know that there is more we need to do, and that is why I am working across Government to take a renewed look at the childcare system, finding ways to improve the cost and availability of childcare and early education for families across England. We do have some of the very best early years provision in the world, and I will continue to be hugely ambitious for working parents, ensuring flexibility and reducing the cost of childcare wherever we can.

A number of hon. Members across the Chamber during this debate have raised international comparators, which are of course important. So far, I have visited the Netherlands, and I will be visiting Sweden and France. I hope to visit more because it is very important that we take an evidence-based approach to this issue and look at the international comparators. [Interruption.] On day trips, I hasten to add, on the Eurostar—these are certainly not jollies. We are very much looking at the evidence and ensuring that we get it right. It is a hugely complex issue.

The Minister is very generous in taking interventions. Could I press him on the point that he is doing some case studies and doing some visits? That is all very helpful, but 12 years have gone by, and this is a crisis, an emergency, and we need to get women back into jobs because the economy is crying out for more workers. Provided that there is a high-quality work environment, I think we all support people getting back into the workforce, but they are saying they cannot afford it. There are the other costs such as the energy bills, the rent or the mortgage: if we add childcare to those, they just cannot make the sums add up.

Of course that is an important point, but let us not forget that this is the Government who introduced the 30 free hours and the offer of 15 hours for disadvantaged two-year-olds, so we do take this issue incredibly seriously. We do understand that parents are struggling now, and I am genuinely looking at what I can do with our spending review settlement to support parents with childcare at the moment.

It is also important that we take a step back and look at the broader issue in the round. The countries that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) rightly referenced in her speech have taken many years to get to their position. They have taken an evidence-based approach, looking at the economic situation in their own countries, and particularly at female participation in the labour market and the difference that makes to the tax yield. I know that we will do the same. [Interruption.] As I said, we spend £3.5 billion, and we have done every year over the past three years on our early education entitlements. In the most recent spending review, we committed to an extra £160 million in 2022-23, another £180 million the year after, and £170 million the year after that, compared with the 2021-22 financial year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) is, of course, a passionate advocate for his great city, and he referenced the holiday activities and food programme, and family hubs. I had the fortune to visit one of the holiday activities and food programmes, organised by Port Vale football club and Adam and Carol. They are doing amazing work, offering enriching activities, healthy nutritious meals, and nutritional education to students across the city, and I very much thank them for that.

We will continue our investment in the holiday activities and food programme throughout the spending review period, so an additional £200 million per year over the next three years will ensure that those programmes continue to go from strength to strength. Stoke-on-Trent has been a successful beneficiary of family hubs, which represent a £500 million investment nationally. I very much look forward to the results and contribution that the great city of Stoke-on-Trent will make, because I know it has a huge ambition of going much further, and above and beyond the expectations of the family hub model in terms of the one-stop shop it can deliver.

There is no greater champion for Swindon than my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), and he is a strong advocate for parents within his constituency. I welcome the addition to his family just a handful of weeks ago. He rightly referenced the importance of provision for special educational needs and disabilities, and I would expect nothing less from a former disabilities Minister. He is right about the importance of units within mainstream schools, and that will be very much at the heart of the SEN review. As part of the spending review we secured an additional £2.6 billion of capital funding, £1.4 billion of which will be allocated for the next academic year. That will ensure that we build not just special school places, but those places within mainstream settings that are so important.

I was fortunate enough to go on a number of visits to nurseries with my hon. Friend, and I thank him for his words about early years staff and the role they play. I also thank Councillor Jo Morris for kindly showing me some of the challenges. My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of business rates, which I will look at with the Chancellor. I must, however, correct him on one point, because schools pay business rates, but the issue is settled by the Department for Education.

To allay my hon. Friend’s concerns about ratios, I should say that we are consulting only on one extra child, and moving to the Scottish model, which has operated in Scotland for some time, but safety and quality are at the heart of everything we do. Finally, he mentioned the holiday activities and food programme and Draycott Sports Camp. It was a most fantastic visit, and I hope that the three-year funding settlement provides certainty that that funding will continue, and allows providers to be more innovative.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) rightly referred to free school meals and food insecurity. This Government have extended eligibility for free school meals several times, and to more groups of children than any other over the past half century. It would carry a hugely significant financial cost if we were to increase the income threshold, and it is right that provision is aimed at supporting the most disadvantaged, and those who are out of work or on the lowest incomes. I will, of course, continue to keep free school meal eligibility under review, to ensure that the meals support those who need them the most.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) speaks with great authority on this subject, given his experience. We always take an evidence based approach, and we focus not just on money in, but on outcomes and on what we are aiming to achieve. He was right to reference Sure Start. We are shifting to family hubs. I am not one to hugely criticise Sure Start, but there are a number of differences in the approach. He was right to focus on nurseries and maintained nursery schools, and that is an area I am looking closely at.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) rightly raised oracy. We are making significant investment in early years, but I and the Minister for School Standards would be happy to meet her and the APPG.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to today’s important debate. The Government are determined to create an education system that offers opportunity to everyone, no matter their circumstances or where they live. That is why we are leading the way and have announced a wider programme of ambitious reforms to truly level up outcomes and ensure that we build back better from the pandemic.

claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main Question accordingly put.

Question agreed to.


That this House notes it is a year since the resignation of the Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins; condemns the Government’s continued failure in that time to deliver an ambitious plan for children’s recovery, including supporting their mental health and wellbeing; is concerned that the inadequate attention being paid to childcare, both for the youngest children and around the school day, is allowing the attainment gap to widen and costs to soar for parents at a time when there is significant pressure on household finances; and calls on the Government to match Labour’s ambitious plan for children’s recovery, including measures to keep childcare costs down for parents while the cost of living crisis continues.