Early Years Children’s Strategy
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to three hours for the debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have seven minutes.
Mervyn Storey (DUP)
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the early years (0-6) strategy consultation by the Department of Education and the comments of stakeholders; agrees that there is a clear need for a cross-departmental and holistic approach to early years provision; and calls on the Minister of Education to develop a cross-departmental and holistic early years children’s strategy and action plan which will fully integrate provision for the social, care and educational needs of young children from pre-birth to age six.
It is to be noted that the motion has the support of all members of the Committee for Education, which we should welcome as we debate this important issue.
I wish to highlight some important deficiencies in the Department of Education’s draft early years (0-6) strategy consultation that were raised directly with the Committee by key early years stakeholders. At the launch of the draft strategy in June, the Minister of Education said:
“The early years in a child’s life are the most important in shaping their future, unlocking their potential, identifying issues early enough so that we can intervene and giving them the opportunity to pursue any path in life they choose. These years are also essential in developing children’s social, emotional, physical and intellectual abilities.”
However, shortly after the launch of the draft strategy, the Committee received a briefing from officials from the Department that raised serious concerns about the document, primarily about its failure to address fully the integration of children’s care and education from pre-birth to the age of six. Those sentiments were echoed by a number of key early years stakeholders.
The Committee had waited some six years for the Department to produce the draft strategy and was so disappointed by the Department’s briefing on 9 June 2010 that members concluded that the strategy as presented failed to address the key issues or provide clear proposals for the way forward. The Committee immediately wrote to the Minister, listing nine areas of concern. That included the lack of equity of standards and variability between early years providers, and, for a five-year strategy, there needed to be more emphasis on the pedagogy to be adopted for the early years curriculum. The Committee subsequently received oral briefings from three key stakeholder organisations: the National Association of Head Teachers nursery subcommittee; Children in Northern Ireland and the Early Years Strategic Alliance; and the Early Years organisation.
The serious reservations about the draft strategy that were aired during those briefings and by others in written correspondence led the Committee to agree to host a major event in the Great Hall on 17 November 2010 to provide a platform for stakeholders’ views and to hear directly responses from senior departmental officials. Some 160 stakeholder representatives attended that event. Among them were parents, teachers and representatives from statutory and non-statutory preschool providers, including interested voluntary and community and private sector organisations. A good number of them participated in a lively, open and valuable panel discussion and the audience question session on the draft strategy.
During the evening, it was proposed that the Department should extend its public consultation period on the draft strategy beyond 30 November 2010. That proposal received widespread support. Subsequently, on 19 November and, again, on 25 November 2010, I put that request formally to the Minister. To date, the Committee has received no response. Perhaps, when she responds to the motion, the Minister could clarify her position on that matter.
The Committee’s difficulties with the draft strategy, which are shared by early years stakeholders, are wide-ranging. The key one that I want to raise and is, therefore, the subject of the motion is that the strategy is supposedly for nought- to six-year-olds, yet it addresses only the educational needs of children aged three years and above, with the exception of a relatively minor mention of the Sure Start programme and the pilot programme for two-year-olds. Those programmes both await evaluation at the time of publication of the draft strategy. That major concern was raised time after time throughout the event, with panellists highlighting the underprovision for children prior to their preschool education year.
I cannot say that the Minister’s officials allayed those fears on the night, as there appeared to be a clear acknowledgement that the Department of Education did not have the remit to implement a true nought-to-six strategy. Officials said that:
“the strategy focuses on the DE educational provision”.
They also said that the Department is:
“not designated as the lead Department for early years”
and nor is any other Department; rather, it is a “shared responsibility”. That is why the Committee’s motion calls on the Minister of Education to develop a cross-departmental and holistic early years strategy and action plan, which will fully integrate provision for the social, care and educational needs of young children from birth to age six.
The Committee asked the three key early years stakeholder organisations, which were represented on the panel at the event, to list their concerns with the DE draft strategy. Those lists were provided to all attendees and are available on the Committee’s home page. I will quote from them to ensure that Members fully understand why the Committee’s motion is before the House. The Early Years Strategic Alliance, which represents members from across the childcare and women’s sectors, referred to the need for:
“integration of early childhood education and care which has proved in other jurisdictions to improve children’s outcomes and counteracts child poverty”.
It went on to say that:
“DE must pro-actively take forward their role as lead Department for Early Years”.
The National Association of Head Teachers’ nursery education sector committee, which represents statutory nursery schools and units, said of the draft strategy:
“The age range 0-3 is barely addressed … This is a missed opportunity to bring real continuity of approach to children’s formative years… an opportunity to bring together services for children and families”.
It said that:
“NAHT consider this Strategy to be unacceptable and not in the best interests of children and families in N. Ireland.”
Finally, the Early Years organisation, which represents 1,200 local early years care and education providers, referred to the need to:
“Commit to the development of an integrated strategy for all children 0-6 but clearly articulate how education and care services for children 0-3 will be enhanced and developed”.
It also referred to the need to create a curriculum that links learning and care needs for children aged nought-to-three and over three years, and emphasised holistic learning. Finally, Early Years referred to maintaining an integrated focus on the nought-to-six age group as crucial, given the weight of evidence from neuroscience, economics, health and education.
All of that represents clear and indisputable evidence of major concerns on the part of early years professional practitioners. The original version of the Department’s draft strategy sought to create an integrated early years and childcare system, and the membership of the numerous groups that were originally consulted on the draft strategy includes health professionals who support that view. However, somehow that vision got derailed over the six years that it took to develop the draft strategy.
Another shortcoming in the draft strategy relates to its provision for special educational needs (SEN). The Department’s policy proposal ‘Every School a Good School: The Way Forward for Special Educational Needs and Inclusion’ was launched in August 2009, and the consultation on it closed at the end of January 2010, yet we still await an outcome. Perhaps the Minister could explain to the House the reason for that delay.
In its draft strategy, the Department referred to the financial benefits and the benefits to the child of early identification, yet early years stakeholders considered that the draft early years strategy failed to adequately address the needs of children with special educational needs, and particularly those in the nought-to-four age band. There is a general consensus among stakeholders that there is a reluctance to assess or statement very young children, and, as a result, the additional requirements of children with special educational needs in preschool are not met. There is also a shortage of adequately trained staff in that area in the voluntary early years sector as a result of the curriculum advisory support service (CASS) being under no obligation to train nursery staff. There are also shortcomings in the training of statutory nursery school staff, and it is widely felt that the absence of specific training for early years staff in SEN is particularly problematic in rural areas.
Although the Department’s draft strategy acknowledges that differences, including those in qualifications, funding, admissions policy and staff:child ratios, remain between the statutory and voluntary sectors in preschool education, it fails to indicate how it will reconcile those differences in the future. Those differences need to be addressed in the short term with the necessary consultation with all those who are involved.
The crucial issues in the debate are that there is no cross-departmental holistic approach to the social care and educational needs of children aged nought-to-six and that no single Minister or Department is taking the lead. Indeed, one lady at the Committee’s event passionately informed us that she must work with seven different Departments to carry out her role with young children. In proposing the motion, the Committee for Education seeks a joined-up approach at Executive level, with the Department of Education taking the lead. That would give proper provision and the right start to the youngest members of our society. It would also ensure that correct and early intervention is made when problems exist and would truly allow those children to unlock their full potential.
Finally, Members should note that the motion today calls for a strategy that encompasses pre-birth provision, and I am sure that Members with a particular interest in that area will pick that up later in the debate. The evidence paper that accompanied the Department’s draft strategy acknowledges that learning starts before a child is born, yet provision for that stage of development is clearly absent in the Department’s draft strategy. During their presentation to the Committee’s stakeholder event, representatives from the Early Years Strategic Alliance reminded us of research in the field of neuroscience that stresses the importance of the final elements of pregnancy and the first two years of life in the mental development of children.
It is clear that the responsibility for provision for pregnant mothers and newborn babies is outside the remit of the Department of Education.
However, problems can occur and develop at an early stage and may not be detected until a child enters the learning environment at the age of three or four. By that time, the problems can be very difficult to address, and, in some cases, it may be too late.
This motion is important. It is more important that we provide for our children in their crucial and critical early years in a way that integrates their social care and educational needs and gives them the best start in life. Therefore, in the light of those comments, I commend the motion to the House.
Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion for a number of clear and critical reasons. First, we all recognise that the first five years of a child’s life are the most critical. That is the most important time for us to influence, effectively address and reverse the impact of disadvantage and poverty.
International research has shown clearly that if we had only £1 to invest, we would get the highest return by investing in the earliest years of a child’s life. Therefore, if we are serious about improving life chances for the most disadvantaged children in society, and if we want to end the intergenerational nature of much poverty and disadvantage and create a fairer and more equal North, investing in early years is critical.
The second reason why Sinn Féin supports the motion is based on the issue of the attainment gap between children. It is glaringly obvious that the gap between advantaged and less advantaged children opens up very early in life. Educational underachievement, despite some beliefs, does not happen at age 11, 14 or even 16. It happens at birth or even beforehand. Therefore, addressing the levels of educational underachievement means addressing early years and ensuring that we get this policy and strategy right.
I think that we have the opportunity at this time to get the strategy right, because the consultation period highlighted some of its very positive aspects. It also highlighted concerns, which the Chairperson of the Committee referred to. It is vital that we iron all those out. We need to get the strategy right, because we obviously cannot afford to get it wrong.
The third reason why I support the motion is that I think that the broad vision as set out in the strategy is right and should be supported. I believe that that is the view of many in the sector. The strategy’s strapline states that we need to enable every child to develop his or her potential by giving each one the best possible start in life. That is exactly what the focus of an early years strategy should be. With that as our starting point, we need to give that vision a clear shape and focus.
The strategy is about ensuring that, regardless of the area that a child is born in, which parent it has and its family’s income, it has the same chance and opportunity as every other child to achieve his or her potential. If a child is born into an uneven playing field and faces difficulties and disadvantage, it is the job of the strategy to have in place the kind of services and support that can address that.
Fourthly, as I said from the start, this is much too important an issue to get wrong. Addressing the huge disadvantages faced by children who are less well off is what matters, and we have the opportunity to seriously address that.
I support the motion, because Sinn Féin is committed to ensuring that we get it right for all our youngest citizens. We are also committed to listening to the views in the voluntary, community and statutory sectors and to working collectively with the other Departments to move forward constructively and with the best effect. If creating the most effective strategy for early years means that we need to have extra time to focus and to get it right, it is important that we give it that time. There has been a request for an extension to the consultation period — perhaps the Minister can address that in her contribution — to ensure that everybody has their voice heard and that nobody feels that they have not been listened to throughout the consultation period.
There are many examples of good practice throughout the sector. I commend the work of the early years organisations, particularly that of Sure Start, which does an excellent job out in the communities by working with families.
We have an excellent opportunity to build and deliver for all the children and young people in our society. The motion is very important, and it is fantastic that it has cross-party support.
Basil McCrea (UUP)
This is one of the more important debates that we will have in the Chamber. I share the concern of the Chairman of the Committee that the early years strategy to date has been very disappointing. I was particularly concerned when it came out in discussion — I think that the Chairperson of the Committee, Mr Storey, raised this issue — that the Department of Education considers itself to be looking at only the educational aspects of early years provision, not a holistic approach. Indeed, it is not clear who, if anybody, is the lead in this issue.
I said in the Chamber when we had debates about such matters as the 11-plus or transfer at 11 that those were the wrong debates. The real debate for our society is about what happens in the early years, in the nought-to-six area of a child’s development. I was always struck by a statistic that by the age of four, a child can be up to two years behind in its educational attainment. Once children are behind in that, they never make it up.
We had a useful debate at a particularly good event in the Great Hall, because we heard a lot from the stakeholders. This is an opportunity for us to say to them, collectively or otherwise, what information we took on board and what we intend to do.
This is a particularly complex issue, which is one reason why it is good that we have so much time to discuss it. We have had a time extension for individual Members to speak. That is a good thing and something that we ought to do for more debates, because we could then have proper discussions.
I hope that the Minister uses this opportunity to announce an extension to the consultation process. There is no doubt that a fine debate has been engendered, that people are very much engaged with the process and that a lot of good ideas are coming forward. I am sure that the Minister will welcome the input from all the stakeholders. They just need a little bit of reassurance that they will be able to have their say. I am sure that that will be to the benefit of all concerned.
Although my colleagues will talk about other issues — Sir Reg Empey will talk about the downstream consequences, and John McCallister about health inequalities — I want to talk about nursery provision. I say that knowing that my colleague Roy Beggs will argue strongly for the voluntary sector. We need to do something together and have a joined-up approach.
I hope that people will take this point in the manner in which it is intended, but the most important thing that I have learned is that nursery school is not just about playing with children. At one stage, I felt that there was almost a suggestion that those who work in nursery schools ought to pay us, because they are allowed to work with children. However, the more that you get into the issue, the more you realise that those are highly trained professionals, teachers and others, who are trained to recognise the specific needs of individual children. I was looking at nursery schools in deprived and other areas. When you see those people at work, you understand the focused attention given to children who need help in life and you realise how valuable that work is.
John McCallister (UUP)
Does my colleague agree that nursery staff play a pivotal role in identifying problems and issues early, whether that is a disability or a developmental problem? It is absolutely vital that nursery staff are skilled, trained and updated as often as possible on developments in those issues.
Basil McCrea (UUP)
I thank my colleague for the intervention. Obviously, he has a little bit of expertise in these matters. Not only is his wife a nursery teacher, he seems to be getting in on the act himself.
However, he raises a fundamental point that I wanted to discuss, which is that in everything from behavioural problems to speech difficulties, or from people on the autistic spectrum who may be at risk to any other people with complex needs, we need people in the early stages who are trained and able to identify a problem and bring forward the appropriate support and help. That is really what early years provision is about.
When it comes to how that fits in with playgroups or other issues, the inspectorate looked at the quality of provision, and there was excellence in all sectors. However, it is really important that we make sure that our teachers are trained to the highest possible level.
In Finland, which is often used as an example of good practice, it should be noted that not only are all of the teachers educated to third-level education, there is also cheap and universal childcare provision. There is a whole issue about how we make sure that people have access, and take up that access, to the provisions put forward. No doubt, people will have mentioned the difficulties about the number of places available, and I am quite sure that Mr Beggs is going to deal with that.
I want to reassure all concerned in the Assembly that the Ulster Unionist Party is totally committed to finding a way of helping very young people. It is disappointing that there is not really a joined-up approach to that. There used to be something called the children’s fund. Now, we have junior Ministers and different Departments involved, no doubt all well-intentioned, but the trouble is that the issue requires cross-cutting, universal action. We need to be working together on the process. Do I have an extra minute because of the intervention?
Basil McCrea (UUP)
It is important that we get a universal approach to the issue. One wonders where our colleagues from the Department of Justice are. People have to realise that it is not just about employment prospects or health prospects; it is also about the fact that those who we do not help early in their careers run the risk of becoming victims of crime or involved in crime. One of the most powerful interventions came from people in the women’s aid sector, when they are looking at how to get quality educational provision when a woman is under threat.
In conclusion, I think there ought to be some emphasis on the physiological development of children. This is not just a nice-to-do thing: neurology does actually play its part. We need an evidence base on that.
I support this very important motion from the Education Committee. Time and again, in the Chamber and elsewhere, we have heard the statement that early intervention is essential to ensure that children get the best possible start in life. Nobel laureate on economic sciences Dr James J Heckman tells us:
“Investments in social policies that intervene in the early years have very high rates of return while social policies that intervene at later ages in the life cycle have low economic returns. A large body of scientific evidence shows a ‘persistent pattern of strong effects’ derived from early interventions. Significantly, these substantial, long-term benefits are not necessarily limited to intellectual gains, but are most clearly seen by measures of ‘social performance’ and ‘lifetime achievement’. In other words, people who participate in enriched early childhood programs are more likely to complete school and much less likely to require welfare benefits, become teen parents or participate in criminal activities. Rather, they become productive adults.”
General research studies suggest that, in comparison to no experience, all forms of preschool experience have a positive impact on attainment in national assessment tests taken at age seven. In addition, preschool attendance has been found to improve school commitment, reducing the risk of disaffection and delinquency during the latter stages of schooling. However, the quality of provision appears to be a crucial determinant on the effects on educational attainment. High quality provision involves small group sizes, high adult:child ratios, a balanced curriculum and trained staff.
Given the current economic climate, investing our limited resources makes good economic sense. Investment in the care and education of young children also makes good sense in boosting educational achievement and closing the gap, especially for vulnerable children and families. We now know from neuroscience that the first 18 months in a child’s development are critical. Northern Ireland has an opportunity to build a first-class education system from the bottom up. Investing well in our youngest citizens will build the wealth of the nation.
The nought-to-six strategy is led by the Department of Education but needs cross-departmental and Executive support. The strategy touches on so many of the core objectives of other Departments. It is a rural issue, an employment issue and a cohesion and sharing issue. We know, from our own Northern Ireland-grown research, that we can prevent sectarianism and racism by investing appropriately in young children and those who work with them. It is a justice issue, for appropriate, high-quality early years services prevent crime. It is a health issue, for we know from international research that we can overcome health inequalities by investing well in young children. I could go on.
The nought-to-six provision touches on all the major issues that we, in this House, are concerned with, but we must pay equal importance to the needs of nought-to-three and three-to-six age groups. We must ensure that all Departments work in an integrated manner so that the care, education and health needs of children are met. We have the opportunity to use existing resources to ensure that the Sure Start model of service delivery is rolled out across Northern Ireland to meet the needs of children. That has already been referred to as a fine programme, and it certainly is.
We know from international research that high-quality early education can be delivered by a range of education and care partners. The Education Committee has welcomed the fact that the Department of Education (DE) has set up a regional implementation group to oversee the implementation phase of the strategy. We hope that that group will create consensus across the various sectoral interests and ensure that there is a focus on meeting holistically the needs of young children. We need to see some early successes and hope that the Department will quickly remove some of the historical anomalies.
We hope that, as the Department moves towards implementation of the strategy, we will see a detailed plan with key targets and milestones. It is critical that, given the potential of the nought-to-six strategy to deliver well for young children and their families, the Executive commit appropriate resources over the lifetime of the next Budget to ensure that the potential of the strategy is realised. I also hope that there will be an extension of the consultation on the strategy.
Trevor Lunn (Alliance)
I welcome the motion, particularly as it is a Committee motion with cross-party consensus. This subject concerns us all, and the universal feeling, as expressed by those who have spoken, is that the strategy consultation document — while it is just a consultation — is seriously lacking, not least in defined actions, timescales and costings. We appreciate that the ability of the Department to make a clear statement on the availability of funding to implement the strategy is constrained by the current economic climate. Nevertheless, the Department should seek to cost some of the proposals.
William Humphrey (DUP)
I am grateful to the Member for giving way.
I too welcome the motion from the Education Committee. Given how vital early years provision is for our community, particularly in working-class and hard-to-reach areas, and having recently had a meeting with Shankill Sure Start, does the Member agree that a decision on a Budget as early as possible will give clarity and certainty to people working in that sector? Apart from anything else and leaving aside finance, there is a human aspect to all of this.
Trevor Lunn (Alliance)
I obviously agree with that, and I make no further comment. Now I have lost my place.
The Department should also make it clear whether commitments such as the upskilling of the workforce can be funded out of existing budgets, if no additional funding is available and to the possible detriment of existing levels of provision. The strategy also fails to highlight the role of complementary stakeholders in the nought-to-six area. For instance, it makes no reference to the role of health visitors, whose input is so important at that stage of a child’s development.
The motion highlights the need for a cross-departmental holistic approach to this provision. The strategy document, as a Department of Education initiative, is lacking in a cross-departmental sense. I hope that the Department will recognise the need, in the terms of the motion and as others have said:
“to develop a cross-departmental and holistic … action plan which will fully integrate provision for the social, care and educational needs of young children”.
Furthermore, the document does not refer to the cohesion, sharing and integration (CSI) strategy, despite the obvious need for it to align with and reflect that strategy’s vision and aims. However, that is, of course, assuming that the CSI strategy can be improved to the point where it is relevant.
The Department has listened to the views of the real experts in the field: the educational practitioners who work with young children and the many and varied bodies that responded to the consultation. As others said, during an open meeting at Stormont a few weeks ago, we heard from teachers, unions and parents about their concerns and fears that the final strategy might not reflect their needs or differ much from the consultation proposals. I would like the Department to accept that the views expressed that evening were neither criticism for criticism’s sake, nor deliberately negative. I hope that the Department and the Minister will take on board and consider the constructive points that were made, and bear in mind the extent of unanimity across the sector on the way forward.
I wish to make a few more specific points. The strategy makes limited reference to the needs of and provision for children with a disability, particularly those whose needs are identified before they go to school. Those children require a multi-agency response to ensure that they reach their full potential. In addition to recognising that group, the strategy should make provision for an effective policy for early intervention and support for children with special educational needs. It is unacceptable that a child in the private or voluntary sector with special educational needs cannot access the same provision as a child in the statutory sector.
There is also insufficient reference to the needs and policy actions required to address the nought-to-three age group. It is vital that the strategy detail how education and care services for children aged nought to three can be enhanced and developed. The document makes numerous references to raising the school age to six and states, in particular, that the strategy is a good place to begin the consideration of the potential implications. However, there is insufficient information on the implications of that change. What, for example, would happen to children aged four and five? How would that change affect the shape of the preschool sector and how would it be resourced? The predefined response document that accompanied the consultation gave no opportunity to comment on that aspect of the strategy. I could make dozens of further points, but most of them are included in the responses that the Department has already received, including my party’s.
Finally, I echo Basil McCrea’s request: it is still not too late for an extension of the consultation period on this important matter. Mary Bradley also mentioned that, and I hope that the Minister will consider it and respond in due course. We support the motion and are glad that it is before the House today.
David Hilditch (DUP)
I welcome and support the motion, and I concur with many of the comments made by the Members who spoke previously.
We are all aware that early years and nursery education begin long before children reach school age. Ability gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils open up early in the first few years of life. If we do not have a strategy and resources to address that, by the time our children reach primary school age, we might have already set a pattern that allows for disadvantage and poor outcomes, which we are already struggling to address. We do not have the preschool education provision that is needed in Northern Ireland. We need good and affordable childcare that has an educational outcome. Given the rise in the birth rate, there has been an unprecedented shortage of around 1,200 preschool places.
Although this is a holistic debate, I wish to take a quick look at the nursery situation, which I am sure is of concern to most Members. Earlier in the year, several parents contacted me at my constituency office because their children had been unable to secure nursery school placements in their area due to the criteria set at board level. For many families, the criteria are extremely unfair, and it has been suggested that some parents were disadvantaged or penalised because they were not on relevant benefits. In fact, some children in Carrickfergus in my constituency were refused places at preschool or nursery units that there were practically next door to their homes. Their parents were, therefore, told to contact other outlets in Carnlough and Ballycastle, which seems quite ridiculous.
I understand that the Minister has released £1·3 million for voluntary and private preschool places. That is welcome news. There is no doubt that it will help to meet the shortage — perhaps totally so, in some cases — and to ensure that, where possible, every child will be placed for the forthcoming school year. However, like the National Association of Head Teachers, I am concerned that the funding does not cover the state sector as such and will not include the provision of any new places in nursery schools and units.
It is well known that we need to turn our attention to addressing the literacy and numeracy problems that exist in primary schools throughout Northern Ireland. That matter could be addressed before school, and it is an area that cannot continue to be underfunded. We recognise that each child develops at his or her own pace. We know that good quality practitioners who are committed to early years are a vital component. We know that there is a need for a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate for the child. We know the crucial role that parents play, and we should be there to give them the support that they need.
Children who attend preschool are benefitted in so many ways. The nursery experience, in particular, benefits social development in all children. Disadvantaged children gain so much more when they are in a mixture of children from different social backgrounds. Children with little or no preschool experience show poorer connectivity and social behavioural outcomes, as other Members indicated, at entry to school and at year one than those who attended preschool.
If high-quality preschool education provision has such a positive effect on children’s intellectual and social development, why is every child not entitled to a funded nursery school place? I urge the Minister to provide that basic opportunity for every child. It is totally unacceptable and unfair that children do not get the same funding to help them to start their educational lives. That should form the basis of some parts of the strategy. If we do not provide funded nursery places for all children, we will probably undermine the benefits of taxpayer investments in the latter stages of the formal school system.
We appreciate the success in increasing the supply of preschool education over 11 years, and it is well noted that the uptake has increased from 44% to 90%. However, there are geographical gaps in supply and demand. Parental choice contributes to the amount of places available, and there are some nurseries to which parents simply do not wish to send their children. Indeed, parental choice has led to some popular state nurseries being oversubscribed by as many as 30 places. Therefore, why does the Minister not pour some of the money that was alluded to earlier into accommodating that sector? Those are issues that hinder our children’s development, and they need to be addressed.
Every child has the right to develop through educational and social activity and to learn through play in the preschool environment so that they can progress into primary 1. I appeal to the Minister for her and her Department, and other Departments as an interdepartmental agency, to ensure that every child is well equipped to meet the needs of primary school foundation stage and years one and two by the time that they leave preschool.
I have concerns that the view held by the Minister that a child’s formal education should not begin until age six will compound the problems that we have in educational attainment. The reality is that many children will not be able to read or write when they go into P3 and that the gap between children who get parental help and support at home and those who do not will widen rather than narrow. It will also create huge difficulties for P3 teachers who have to work with classes that have children who are advanced in their reading and writing and those who are only starting to learn formally.
It has been found that there are significant differences between preschool settings and their impact on children. Statutory nursery schools and classes had the best outcomes, with good outcomes also identified for playgroups. That is not to say that other types of preschool did not produce benefits; they did, but they did not offer the same long-lasting educational assistance. Those findings were supported by the chief inspector’s annual report in Northern Ireland, which found that the highest percentage of good to outstanding practice in early years provision was located in those statutory nursery schools that were inspected.
Almost all Members agree that the most important years of a child’s learning experience are in the early years between nought and six. The fact that the Department has failed to produce anything is, therefore, unacceptable for all Members who have called for an emphasis on that strategy for some time.
We have the lowest school starting age in Europe. It has been suggested that many of our children are not ready to enter into the formal reception class and that it causes some children much stress. We have also been advised that, in relation to the compulsory school starting age, an earlier start at preschool has been linked to better intellectual development and improved independence, concentration and sociability for children. Thus, duration of attendance at preschool — the time between entrance to preschool and the start of school — is considered to be one of the most important times in preparing a child for school.
We were to have an early years strategy from the Department, but it has not yet arrived. We were told that it would be presented through the Minister at the end of the year, but we are still waiting for it, which is disappointing, to say the least. The message is simple: the Minister cannot delay the early years strategy. An evaluation of a school curriculum that is going to settle children into school, make them more enthusiastic about the learning process and increase their social development skills is needed immediately.
Gerry Adams (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to speak in support of the motion and to thank the Education Committee for bringing it forward. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí is an Irish proverb. It means, cherish the young and they will flourish. There is a wealth of reports, studies and information to support the wisdom of that proverb and to prove conclusively the value of early years programmes for children.
As Members have said, the period in a child’s life up to the age of six is crucial to his or her personal, social and educational development. Basic social skills, such as learning to co-operate or to take turns, and the development of an emotional vocabulary are also essential to children. Young children need those skills if they are to develop and to function effectively in social settings or in school. Some children have special needs, such as Asperger’s Syndrome or autism. They need additional support, and the earlier that those children receive that assistance the better. It is obvious that all children will benefit from early years programmes.
I, therefore, welcome the Department’s draft early years strategy. The goal of the draft strategy and the consultation must be to ensure the provision of the best possible services for children and their parents. That will not be achieved by the Department of Education in isolation. In the Shankill area of west Belfast, for example, nursery schoolteachers have told me that more than half their pupils have special learning needs. That is totally unacceptable, and it is crucial that any strategy must bring together all those providing support for families and children. In west Belfast, integrating services for children and young people is an excellent example of that under the auspices of the task force.
Poverty issues, childcare protection and provision and health provision are matters that extend beyond the remit of the Department of Education, as is acknowledged in the motion. I am advised that 46% of the young children in the Colin area of west Belfast, for example, are not registered with a dentist. The Edenderry Nursery School on the Shankill has advocated a model for co-locating services, which I strongly support. It envisages the co-location of family support workers, speech and language therapists and health visitors with children on school sites. That is essential in tackling the impact of poverty and disadvantage on children.
Some young children from disadvantaged families have very limited vocabularies. I queried that recently with nursery schoolteachers, and, to my surprise, I was told that that was because the telling of nursery rhymes and stories no longer happens in some families. I have also been told of young children who have Coca-Cola in their feeding bottles. Not only is that bad for their general health, but it causes tooth decay, which, apart from the obvious discomfort, affects their ability to speak clearly.
Some months ago, I visited some Sure Start projects. I commend the commitment of the staff and the exceptional work that they carry out on a daily basis in providing help and support for families and children, particularly those who are disadvantaged.
Many committed professionals and voluntary and community workers are active in supporting children, particularly teachers, boards of governors and school staff. I commend all of them and argue, as the motion does, for a joined-up and cohesive approach involving all those sectors and all the appropriate agencies and Departments. I also advocate the concept of special learning zones to break the cycle of educational disadvantage. I commend that to the Minister.
I know that the Minister is determined to construct the best early years strategy possible and that she is mindful of the need for a holistic approach to achieving that. I wish her well in that work.
With your indulgence, and as this is my last speech in the Assembly in this phase of my life, I extend best wishes to my colleagues here. I thank you and your colleagues, especially the Ceann Comhairle, for the fair, balanced and inclusive way in which the business of the Assembly is conducted. My thanks also go to the staff, from cleaners to admin, ushers, caterers, security and civil servants. Tá mé fíorbhuíoch díbh. I am thankful to all of them.
The Assembly is approaching the end of its first full term, which is a remarkable achievement given the difficulties that have been overcome. The Assembly is about delivering for citizens. The island of Ireland is too small for us to be separated for ever by an artificial border. Most sensible people know that, and the Good Friday Agreement recognises it. Godspeed the day when we will be united. Today’s debate is an example of the issues that must be tackled if we are to improve the living conditions of citizens, particularly our children. Good luck to all of you in that important work. I commend the motion. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Jonathan Craig (DUP)
Yes. It is not often that I welcome the departure of someone from the House, but I am rather glad to see the back of him.
I support the motion.
“Early years are vital years in our children’s lives. They are unique in terms of children’s intellectual, emotional, physical and social development and the formation of children’s ability to interact successfully with the world around them, both in early childhood and in later life. They are the springboard for creating confident learners and participative citizens.”
Those are not my words. They are the words of the Education Minister in the foreword to the Department of Education’s early years strategy. It is good to read something with which I agree. However, the Minister has produced a strategy that is insignificant and misses many of the important points that have been raised, not only by researchers, but by stakeholders who specialise in the subject area. The early years of a child’s life are vital and are reflected in the development of a child and his or her later learning. Social interaction, communication and academic ability all boil down to what children learn in those early years.
It is vital that we get the strategy right, because children, as we are often reminded, are our future and are vital to the future of our country. We got it right when we called it the nought-to-six strategy because it has taken us six years to get to where we are now. That is the only part of the strategy with which I totally agree.
On 24 June 2010, the Chairperson of the Committee for Education wrote to the Minister of Education to highlight a number of concerns. I have highlighted and listed some of them today as they form the foundation of the debate. The absence of good evidence in the strategy, as to the benefits of early years education, has been highlighted by stakeholders. There is an assertion that the lack of school readiness is related only to income groups. That is fascinating.
Last Friday, I had the delight to be at Barbour Nursery School, which takes in one of the most deprived places in Lisburn, the Hillhall estate. Bordering it is one of the more affluent areas in Lisburn — probably in Northern Ireland, if the truth be told — so there is an interesting mix of children in that group. When I investigated how its strategy of teaching and learning improved the lives of children, it was fascinating to find out that it improved the lives of all the children, regardless of the background of their parents. That scheme has, quite frankly, picked up many early difficulties in the lives of those children, whether they come from a more affluent or a more deprived background. It is a strategy that helps those children to develop.
The strategy ignores the fact that a child may not be ready for school due to, for example, the number of books at home and the access that a child has to educational resources. Again, that is not true solely of those from deprived backgrounds. I have seen examples in my constituency of people from surprisingly middle-class backgrounds having the same difficulties in their childhood. There is also an absence in the strategy of an evidence-based focus on play-based learning and development. It is also lacking in laying out the current legislative provision and an indication of any future legislative proposals. What does the Minister intend to do to tackle that fast-evolving subject? Does she have any ideas worth discussing?
Other issues include those of the potential change to the school starting age, which has not been addressed, and the absence of any costing to implement the draft strategy. Stakeholders, many of whom work in the field, argue that the strategy is severely lacking in detail. There is also a view that the published strategy does not focus enough on the child. Stakeholders also pointed out that the strategy failed to mention the child poverty strategy that is being drawn up by OFMDFM, yet it talks about a joined-up approach.
Stakeholders have accused the Department of Education of failing to take the lead on the early years issue and of simply drawing up and publishing, for the sake of it, a strategy that is inadequate. I tend to agree with that assertion. The Minister needs to take this strategy back to the Department and to come back to the Committee when she has taken on board and acted on all these issues. A strategy is pointless without direction, support and a workable plan that has the support of all the stakeholders. The Minister talks regularly about consensus. She has certainly failed to win over the people who matter here and to reach a consensus.
Reg Empey (UUP)
I echo the words of my colleague from Lagan Valley Basil McCrea who said that issues such as this represent the real education debate: the one that we should have been having over past years, instead of the ideological trench warfare with which we have, unfortunately, been left.
I want to concentrate for a moment on the downstream consequences of failure during the early years. Members may not be fully aware of the costs that fall to other Departments because of failure at the nought-to-six stage. All the evidence is that, for children at that stage, and even from nought to three, their development forms the basis of their future success. That, in turn, is linked closely to their social and economic backgrounds. In my view, there is little doubt that it is infinitely more difficult and expensive to try to deliver a service to teach reading, writing, numeracy and ICT to a young adult at 16. We all understand why.
Is it not a national scandal that, after so many years at school, we are still, despite improvements in recent years, turning out thousands of young people without adequate qualifications in those areas? I simply do not understand how and why it is that we allow our children to go from primary to post-primary schools unable to read or write. No possible successful outcome can be achieved under those circumstances.
Among the other costs, of course, is that DEL has to deal with the essential skills side of things. I know for a fact that tens of millions of pounds are spent every year engaging with organisations to try to deal with such young people. That is because, sadly, many of them fall into a category that we have debated in the House time and time again: NEETs — those not in education, employment or training.
I pay tribute to the many voluntary organisations that take on that difficult work. The subject is specialised and can be extremely difficult. There is a correlation between young people from care backgrounds and dysfunctional families and alcohol and drug abuse and all the other social ills. Those young people inevitably clash with the justice system at that stage, and there are costs to that. Any member of the Justice Committee who has visited Hydebank Wood has seen that young people are there because of mistakes that were made at the beginning of their lives. If we in the Assembly do nothing other than address those issues, we will, I hope, have at least earned our place and justified our existence.
The status quo is not working. Although there have been improvements, and many dedicated professionals are doing what they can, day and daily, the fact remains that a very large percentage of our population, particularly our young people, do not have even basic skills. How are they going to progress through employment? How will they prosper? How are they going to do anything other than remain in a permanent clash with the justice system? That represents waste, not only economic waste, but personal waste and a waste of the social interaction that they could have had. What happens when they become parents? The cycle goes on. The Assembly has to break that cycle, and we must realise that we have to move resources from the latter part of people’s development to the beginning of that development. I believe that, over time, that will solve many problems.
Parents have, of course, come to the Education Committee to say that they are not content that their children are being required to attend school at the age of four. We have heard very eloquent and passionate presentations from parents who said that their children were simply not ready at that age. They also pointed out that people forget about premature births. If we add that into the criteria for the qualifying date of birth for a child going to school, we can see that that can have a significant impact. We will have to look at that issue and at examples from elsewhere and realise that perhaps the parents know best. On the other hand, if a child comes from a dysfunctional background, perhaps schooling will give some focus and formality to that child’s life. So, there is a tension between those two positions, and it is a tension that we are going to have to address. I hope that the Minister will draw attention to that in her summing up.
My colleague mentioned the position of the children’s fund, which was an Executive programme fund that came about in the first Assembly. No sooner had the Assembly come down than the fund was got rid of. The then Secretary of State, Peter Hain, brought it back and then it was gone again. I know that the two junior Ministers have taken on a specific responsibility for children, and there is, of course, a cross-departmental subcommittee, but we have to admit that our position on early years and on how we deal with children has been consistently inconsistent. Some clarity and certainty has to be brought into the area.
I commend the motion to the House. I believe that the Committee has done the right thing in bringing it forward, and I hope that it will form the basis of a real debate on education and not continue the trench warfare in which we have been engaging in recent years.
John O'Dowd (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Éirím le tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún.
I support the motion. I welcome the tone of the debate. It has been a good and instructive debate on the very important subject of early years and on how we, as an Assembly, and the Executive progress through the issue in the time ahead.
The consultation on the draft strategy that was published by the Department of Education ended at the end of November. The strategy drew many comments and, it has to be said, much criticism. No one can shy away from the fact that we have to get it right. It has taken a long time to get the strategy published, but if it takes longer to implement and requires the Executive to collectively look at the programme of work, that is what should happen. We should ensure that we get a collective strategy that deals with children aged nought to six. As the Chairperson of the Committee for Education said, the motion alludes to the latter stages of pregnancy and the development of children in the womb.
The education of our children takes place in a number of venues, including in the formal setting of our schools, but it also takes place in our homes and communities. I am fortunate to be the father of a three-year-old and a five-year-old. We, as parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents or in any other position that requires dealing regularly with children of that age, know only too well that they have very inquisitive minds. The most regular question that I get asked about any factor of life is: why? In fact, some of the most sensible conversations that I have after leaving here at the end of the day are in the house with my three-year-old and five-year-old. I never win those arguments.
My wife and I are fortunate to be able to take the time to engage with our children. I am sure that that is the case in most homes. However, unfortunately, there are homes in which it is not happening. In such homes, people, for whatever reason, are not spending time talking and listening to their children and engaging with, and, indeed, playing with them. That is where the most important factor of education has to be. We are told that more than 70% of a young person’s educational attainment, whether they are in primary school, nursery or in post-primary school, is as a result of what happens in the home and the community. Therefore, one reason why we have to have a collective strategy is to send the message out loud and clear that, although people send their children to school for formal education, parents, guardians and older siblings have a responsibility to encourage young people to become educated and to grow into the full people that they can be.
I welcome Reg Empey’s comments about Hydebank. The visit to Hydebank has had a lasting impression on the Justice Committee members who took part. A number of Members talked about the different Departments that are involved and a number of them mentioned the Department of Justice. At Hydebank, we were brought into a recreational room — I do not want to overemphasise the facilities — where we met five or six young people who were aged 15 or 16. Every one of them had known each other from when they were children through being in the institutions. They had gone through one institution after another. I do not accept that anybody is born bad. People are born into circumstances that are beyond their control. They are born into environments that create disadvantage in their lives that lead them to commit crimes against society. As Sir Reg said, if we do not get this right for children at an early age, we are going to continue to repeat the same mistake.
I think it is today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’ that has an article about the police questioning four-year-olds, six-year-olds, eight-year-olds, etc. On the radio this morning, somebody made a comment that the police should be charging the parents or guardians of those young people. If we, as elected representatives and as an institution of government, continue to fail to protect, encourage and build our young people, the people who should be charged are those in this gathering: the politicians. If we, as a Government, an Assembly and politicians, continue to fail those people, we are failing more and more generations, and Justice Committees of the future will go to meet 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds who will have been in institutions since they were children. That is why this strategy is important.
Debate has been ongoing for a considerable period about whether preschool education should take place in a formal setting, such as statutory education in a nursery, and whether a child attending a community or voluntary facility is losing out. I am somewhat disappointed by the tone of that debate, particularly between the two sectors. It is a debate that is required and is necessary, but we need to draw the lines back a bit and to have each sector learn from the other. The statutory and community sectors can teach each other what the advantages are, because the tone of the debate thus far indicates that we are missing the objective.
Let us not retreat into our own corners and come out fighting over the school starting age. Let us think about what is best for the young children involved and have a mature, sensible debate around it. Let us not just say, “In my head, I have a position, and I am going to defend that position”. Let us ensure that we have an informed debate, challenge each other and come out the other side on the side of the argument that is best for the educational well-being of our children.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
I declare an interest as a governor of Glynn Primary School and as a committee member of Horizon Sure Start, which assists children in areas of need in Larne and Carrickfergus.
The early years of a child’s life are extremely important for their development and future life prospects. It is vital that, between the ages of nought and six, all children are adequately equipped to develop emotionally, physically and socially to reach their full capability, whether in education or the world of work. We need to do all that we can to help our children to achieve that by helping to create confident, active and positive citizens.
That early investment, as well as being good for individuals, makes economic sense. That has been recognised internationally through the work of Professor James Heckman. Over the past year or so, Steve Aos of Washington State has been in this Building, and Dr Harry Burns, the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, who identified the importance of early years learning and early education, spoke at an Investing for Health partnership meeting that I attended.
More needs to be done to the strategy to ensure that parents, as well as children, are more significantly included in the early years programme. It is widely accepted and respected that the nought-to-six age bracket is important, but the preschool and pre-nursery years — those very early years — are vital in a child’s development.
Up to four years of age, most children’s time is spent with their parents and families, and, therefore, most of their learning and many of the habits that they acquire come directly from their parents. It is important that there are positive experiences and positive learning. There is a brief acknowledgement of that in the strategy, but there is also a failure to place suitable importance on that area. The emphasis seems to have been placed on the statutory settings of school and nursery.
Suitable parental support must be built in to the strategy to ensure that parents get adequate support and guidance on good parenting skills. That makes me think of my dad’s family of 12 children, and my late grandfather who worked at the local bleach green for 55 years. They were a stable family with a good work ethic, and value was placed on education. The children were encouraged to work hard and to develop through education, and I would want every child to grow up in such an environment where they can better themselves.
It is widely accepted that good parental nurturing can affect brain development: there is scientific evidence. Hardwiring occurs in the brain in those very early years, and if you wait until a child reaches preschool, it can be too late. Opportunities will have been missed. Aside from international research, we have local early years organisations such as Sure Start, Barnardo’s, and Action for Children. They all recognise the significant role of the family and how the early family environment can set the foundations for a child’s better life chances. Therefore, there is a need to support parents in order to improve their parenting skills in those early years.
The strategy mentions the fact that some programmes will be extended and expanded. However, it fails to acknowledge the areas in which change is needed and the fact that choices must be made. I refer in particular to a recommendation in a recent PAC report, which identified the need to address problems with some substandard reception classes. To get better outcomes, we have to make improvements on where we spend money.
I found it sad that the Minister’s personal political pet issue, the Irish language, is covered more extensively in the strategy than assisting children with speech and language development issues. Recently, on a visit to a Sure Start scheme, I spoke to the parent of a child who had almost become isolated because of speech and language impediments, but who, in a relatively short time, caught up and is now back up to speed and ready for the school environment. I think also of parents who do not have good English, who may be isolated in their community and unable to access fully the Health Service in order to gain benefits for their children. Those are priority areas in which, rather than teaching the Irish language, we should be teaching English and ensuring that people have good speech and language skills. It is inappropriate, therefore, to include Irish language teaching in the debate.
Why are 7% of children not accessing preschool education? Is it because some parents choose to home educate? I suspect that, as was mentioned earlier, it is also to do with the availability of places. In addition, in some disadvantaged communities, there is an issue with why some parents and their children are not engaging with services. Therefore, further research is needed in that area to ensure that those in greatest need receive assistance.
As I am sure Members are aware, the issue of two-year-olds entering a nursery setting must be dealt with straight away. It is dreadful that someone in their immediate preschool year is not given a place, yet we are funding two-year-olds to go into a class with four-year-olds. If you had a playgroup at home, would you expect two-year-old children to play with four-year-olds? It would be ridiculous, unless the group was on such a scale that you could have specialist groups for each age range.
It is vital that we invest money wisely to ensure that everyone in their immediate preschool year gets a place. I think of a family in Carrickfergus who were not offered a place mainly because the husband was working. They lived in a former council house and were working, so they did not qualify to be prioritised because they were not on benefits. To add insult to injury, they were then rejected by another group, only to be offered a place in its private unit.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
It is essential that everyone in their immediate preschool year be afforded a place and that there be no inequality. If the system cannot offer a funded preschool place, I would far rather that funding be offered to that person so that they can go to find support. Why should someone on relatively low earnings, whose child has been excluded because the state cannot find a place, have to pay for private preschool education? A huge inequality exists, and it must be addressed. There is also an issue with how the numbers are carved up.
Although the Department has an influence on nursery school places, playgroups can also provide an excellent service, and that has been recognised by the inspectorate. Indeed, there are many nursery schools that rural communities cannot avail themselves of due to their location.
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
Research points heavily towards the benefits of front-loading resources into the early years sector. That appears to be the conclusion of the knowledge base, and if we fail to plan for young people in the nought-to-six age group, it is crystal clear that we will, in effect, fail them in later life.
I have seen at first hand, over some 21 years in family and childcare social work, the need to get it right with an early intervention, from a societal and educational point of view. Let us be absolutely clear: many young people fail through no fault of their own, and many live with parents who have a chemical dependency on drugs, alcohol or prescription medication. In my experience, many men failed their young people by leaving mothers to bring up their children with limited financial or emotional support. In many cases, they left children bereft. It is a testimony to many mothers in society who brought up children on their own that they have done it so well in their circumstances.
Young people have benefited from home support and the services provided by schemes such as Sure Start and Bryson House, which have made a difference to their lives. Those of us who worked in intensive support social work teams and dealt with those children in adolescence could see the difference in their lives when services were front-loaded. Many support and education schemes that have long-lasting benefits can be put in place before a child comes to school.
Many of us are fortunate to have been brought up by very good mothers and fathers. We saw the capacity that they seemed to have, almost naturally, to provide excellent parenting. Shortly after my son was born, I was invited to a parenting class in a local Methodist church. I remember thinking that it was going to be interesting to see what that parenting class provided. I have a degree in psychology, and I could quote Piaget’s somatosensory period of child development. There was almost a false arrogance on my part. I asked myself: what could I learn from the class? When we went to the parenting class, we were told some very simple things, such as letting children see parents reading a newspaper, because when children see parents reading, they take on board that reading is important. It is important because Mum, Dad or whoever provides the care is doing it. Issues that I thought were superficial are vital to a child’s normal development. We need to make such parenting classes integral, and make sure that they are provided in facilities to which the community has easy access without huge cost.
When I worked beside child and adolescent psychiatrists, I found it difficult to deal with the fact that some young people who had hit their teenage years, at 14 or 15, were addicted to mixtures of vodka and prescription medication. Their health was being torn apart because they were taking medication to improve their heart rate and to raise their blood pressure while using other medication to drive down their heart rate. I asked one of the psychiatrists about the programme that they were following. The psychiatrist explained that, using one case as an example, a person’s emotional reactions and how he or she copes with certain situations are, quite literally, hard-wired into that person’s system from what he or she observed during the nought-to-six period. In those formative years, children who experienced domestic violence and emotional trauma, or were abused or saw a parent being hurt or injured, missed out. Their brains have not been hard-wired into being able to cope properly emotionally with any given situation within the normal parameters. I emphasise that the difficulty is that, if they miss out on that during the nought-to-six period, it is not a repair job later on; it is about dealing with and managing the chaos. If we miss the essential hard-wiring in those early years, it cannot easily be put back in place, if at all.
The issue is not solely the Department of Education’s responsibility. However, the critical point is that the Department of Education must take the lead and, along with the other Departments, show a serious joined-up approach to children aged nought to six. If we get that right and provide a proper and adequate service during the early years, I doubt that the House will do anything of more value in this Assembly term. Therefore, although I pay tribute to those who have been so successful in providing services for the nought-to-six age group so far, I conclude with a call for the Department of Education to take a more strategic leadership direction and to lead the debate and co-ordinate the services to ensure that a future generation gets a joined-up response. In many ways, getting it right now will save us many future problems.
John McCallister (UUP)
I start by declaring an interest: my wife is an employed nursery-school teacher, and I suppose that, given that we have a seven-week-old baby, we have a great interest in the nought-to-six strategy.
I hope that the good nature of the debate does not diminish its importance or let the Minister think that we are all agree that the strategy is wonderful and does not need significant changes. Many Members have talked about the various aspects that tie into that, such as Home-Start and Sure Start, and those programmes are absolutely vital to continue the good work. My colleague Michael McGimpsey spoke last week about why he has continued to fund Home-Start. He said:
“That is why I set aside resources from my own budget to provide continuing support to over 40 former children’s fund projects that were pursuing activity that contributed to improving outcomes for children and their families in line with the aims and objectives of my Department.” — [Official Report, Vol 58, No 4, p237, col 1].
We must focus on the best outcomes for those children. Many Members have mentioned the importance of getting into families early and the hard-wiring of the brain at a very early age. The Committee Chairperson mentioned pre-birth provision, which is about intervening early, helping families before they hit crisis point and looking at health inequalities.
I want to focus primarily on some of the health inequalities that stem from the issues. There are some major ones. I am grateful to my colleague Michael McGimpsey for the way that he has dealt with some of those inequalities from a Public Health Agency perspective. I draw Members’ attention to the fact that we can begin with early intervention. That not only improves physical health but can have a huge impact on the mental health agenda. We need not only to consider how to deal with ill health or bad mental health but how to promote flourishing mental health. Mental health problems can start at a very young age, and we can give children coping mechanisms and coping strategies for later life. We have to get to grips with that issue. We have only to look at the appalling record on suicide and self-harm in different parts of Northern Ireland. If the strategy is done properly and is co-ordinated across government, it could make a difference to that.
There are other health inequalities and differences in parts of Northern Ireland. For example, there can be anything up to a 24-year difference in life expectancy. What are the key factors? We must look at people’s socio-economic backgrounds, educational achievement, diet and exercise levels.
As others have said, all that ties in to their life experiences from a very early age. That is why it is so important to get the strategy right and why so many Committee members, including me during my time on the Committee, were so disappointed with the strategy. They felt that it had almost totally ignored the nought-to-three element and focused purely on the three-to-six age group.
Justice has been mentioned, and there is a fine line between someone becoming a victim and a perpetrator. Problems include antisocial behaviour, children running around the streets with seemingly no parental control, stemming from a very young family or no —
Roy Beggs (UUP)
Is the Member aware of the presentation that Steve Aos gave in this Building? He said that, rather than investing millions of dollars in new prisons, Washington state decided to invest in early years and that that money appears to have been well spent.
John McCallister (UUP)
That is a very useful intervention, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board. Having campaigned so much to get justice devolved here, let us hope that she will engage with the Department of Justice on those issues to see what improvements can be made to the strategy and how we can improve the outcomes for children in the years ahead. Justice has an important role. We can stem back to a younger age group the lessons on family and responsibility, what is seen and goes on in the home and all the aspects to do with teen pregnancies and the rise in STIs. We need to intervene much earlier, much better and much more effectively.
We need to look at some cross-departmental workings, and I agree with other Members who said that there is a need to get this right across the Departments. DARD is involved in providing some of the rural childcare, and OFMDFM is looking at the child poverty strategy and has the lead on the shared future CSI strategy, although whether we think it is any good is a debate for another day.
Mervyn Storey (DUP)
My question is at the risk of the Member’s making a party political speech, which he did at the weekend. It is easy for us to point the finger at everyone else and to pick out the Departments for which our parties do not have responsibility. Will he accept that the way that Health interacts with Education for practitioners on the ground is less than satisfactory? One Department tries to use one piece of the legislation to opt out from what it is required to do. We often talk in the House about joined-up government and it is really only an attempt to have a go at another party. Let us see it genuinely working on the ground. The Health Department also has to take a responsibility for that.
John McCallister (UUP)
I thank the Member for that intervention. One obvious area of distinct lack of joined-up government that I was coming to in my remarks is the I CAN centre in Ballynahinch, where the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust was providing the speech and language service and the Department of Education and the Minister were seemingly powerless to tell the board to make it work. Even when other options were looked at, including letting the funding for each child follow to the I CAN centre, they seemed to fall apart for the sake of £10,000.
Basil McCrea (UUP)
Will the Member agree that few things are more important than being able to communicate and that the I CAN centre is one place that helps with that? The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has an excellent role to play, and we ought to promote that work and to ensure that that is included in the submission.
John McCallister (UUP)
I could not agree more with those two points. We need to get on board with this, co-ordinate this approach and get in early. This should be a flagship policy, and we need to look at going back to the example of the children’s fund for how you get resources and make a difference to the outcome for children.
Dawn Purvis (Independent)
I support the Committee’s motion, particularly its call for a cross-departmental, holistic approach to early years. Like other Members, I looked forward to the release of the long-awaited early years strategy. I was pleased that the Department of Education allocated a decent length of time for consultation.
As others have pointed out, the importance of early care and intervention to break the cycle of educational underachievement is no more acutely felt than in Protestant working-class areas. As we know, Protestant working-class boys make up the major non-progessing group in the education sector. The impact that that has on the individual, community and society is devastating. That is why I set up a working group to look at educational underachievement among Protestant working-class boys. I encourage all those who have an interest in that area to read the consultation document and to respond in kind. We know how important early years are to tackling that.
As the Department, rightly, recognises in the consultation document, early years programming has a profound effect on children’s education and development that extends well beyond their early years. That is particularly true of children from households that struggle with deprivation and poverty. Given the multitude of international research that now supports the long-term value and cost benefits of supporting children and their families from an early age, much of which appeared in the Department’s evidence-based paper to support the policy document, I had hoped and expected that the strategy would contain a comprehensive and multidepartmental approach to early years.
Although I am pleased to see in the document a rhetorical commitment to improving outcomes for children by the end of foundation stage, and a commitment to providing parents with a key role in meeting those outcomes, the policy proposals that support the objective are insufficient to achieve that goal, largely because they are solely limited to the current areas of responsibility of the Department of Education. Certainly, that was probably the most disappointing aspect of the Department’s recent presentation to the all-party group on children and young people.
The document defines early years as being from birth to the age of six, yet the policy initiatives offered largely cover services that a child can access at a point of contact with the Department of Education, which, as outlined earlier, is extremely rare from the ages of nought to three, with the exception of participation in Sure Start. I know first-hand of the success of Sure Start schemes. Unfortunately, however, that is not evidence-based, as the schemes have yet to be evaluated in Northern Ireland.
(Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
Outside of those limited initiatives, the document offers little to children aged between nought and three years, such as infant mental well-being and development or interventions for families in the home. Essentially, the draft policy is a decent foundation stage document. However, it is not an early years document.
Furthermore, it is critical that families, particularly those who are most vulnerable, are offered some form of support for early years development in the privacy of their own homes. Parents and families are their children’s primary caregivers and first educators. Support is particularly critical for parents of young children. Much could be achieved through co-operation, particularly between the Department of Education and the Health Department. It is worth noting the ongoing implementation of the Family Matters strategy.
Basil McCrea (UUP)
I know that the Member has great interest in the area and has set up her own task force. Perhaps, when she mentions the Health Department, she might also suggest the involvement of the Minister of Justice because, obviously, there are long-term implications for his Department.
Dawn Purvis (Independent)
I thank the Member for his intervention. He is absolutely right. All Departments need to work together. When the education system fails and young people do not achieve, it shows up in other Departments’ budget lines. It shows up in the Department of Justice, the Health Department, the Department for Employment and Learning, and right across the board.
The policy document also raises questions about the childcare and child support services that are available to children and families from birth. Certainly, the evidence-based paper made compelling arguments in favour of the integration of early years education and development with childcare provision and policy, yet there is no meaningful discussion of that in the draft policy document.
Although I recognise that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has responsibility for the development of a childcare strategy, I am deeply concerned at the delays in that effort and the fact that there is still no one Department with responsibility for addressing what is a critical social and economic issue. Childcare can provide opportunities to prepare children for learning and support parents through their child’s education and development. The case for the integration of childcare and early years education services is well made by international research and experience.
The issue is also tied to the discussion that the Department of Education is having about raising the school age, which is an issue that my working group has looked at. The argument has its merits, particularly in learning outcomes for boys. However, it cannot be considered in a vacuum, and it should not be advanced without full consideration of the preschool and childcare provisions that will be available to those children before statutory education begins.
Jonathan Bell (DUP)
I thank the Member for her extensive quoting of international research, and I support the point that she made about the Protestant working class, which we came from. Indeed, the disadvantage in Protestant working-class boys is becoming even starker.
Will the Member comment on the work undertaken by Peter Shirlow from Queen’s University in advancing loyalist communities in north Down and Strangford? In that work, he highlighted the fact that one in five children educated in the maintained sector accesses university, yet only one in 10 of those educated in the controlled sector does the same.
Dawn Purvis (Independent)
I thank the Member for his intervention, and he will be aware that Dr Pete Shirlow is part of the working group that I set up. I am acutely aware of the statistics on Protestant working-class boys, their access to universities, how they leave school with few or no qualifications and the growing number who leave school barely able to read or write. The consultation on my working group’s document closes on 13 December, and I would welcome the Member’s comments on it.
As the issue is cross-departmental and is tied to areas including childcare provision and the age at which children begin school, I am also deeply concerned that the Department has no clear plans to consult children and young people directly on the proposals.
Caitriona Ruane (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé iontach sásta go bhfuil an Tionól ag cur spéise in oideachas sna luathbhlianta. Tá a fhios againn go bhfuil luathbhlianta shaol an pháiste ríthábhachtach d’fhorbairt agus d’fholláine an pháiste sa todhchaí.
I welcome the interest of the Assembly in early years education. We know that the early years of a child’s life are of critical importance to its future development and well-being. We also know that interventions early in life can help to reduce barriers to learning that may otherwise reduce children’s long-term chances of success.
The draft early years strategy, which has attracted widespread interest and comment, aims to set out a vision and plan for the development of early years services in the context of the responsibilities of the Department of Education. It seeks to ensure better outcomes for children by setting out a framework to improve the provision and quality of services to the youngest children and their parents and families over the next five years. It is particularly important given that we are a society emerging from conflict and we want to break the intergenerational nature of disadvantage. Therefore, the draft strategy has a clear focus on learning and education from age three onwards. However, in recognition of the vital importance of the early years of a child’s life in determining its future well-being, the draft strategy also seeks to make targeted provision before the preschool year a recognised area of our work. That early provision is focused on those who can benefit most from additional support. The Sure Start programme and its associated services operate in designated areas of disadvantage with the aim of providing families with the support necessary to ensure that children are well prepared for the future.
In considering the issue of early years, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are building on a platform of well-established, high-quality services or forget that my Department makes significant investment in early years provision. We know that we have quality early years services in preschool, in education and in our Sure Start programmes on which to build.
Mar shampla, tá a fhios againn go bhfuil caighdeáin an-ard le fáil sna seirbhísí luathbhlianta — sa réamhscolaíocht agus sna cláir Tús Cinnte, agus is féidir linn cur leis sin. I dtaca leis an mbliain réamhscoile de, léiríonn tuairiscí ón gCigireacht Oideachais agus Oiliúna go bhfuil an tsármhaitheas le fáil inár gcuid seirbhísí agus go bhfuil caighdeán an tsoláthair réamhscoile ag dul chun feabhais bliain i ndiaidh bliana.
In relation to the preschool year, reports from the Education and Training Inspectorate show that we have much excellence in our services and that the quality of preschool provision is improving year on year, and I welcome that.
There is quality provision in the statutory and the private voluntary sectors. There are people who suggest that statutory nursery provision should be available for all children. There is a view that the current system offers parents greater choice and flexibility as well as a high-quality and cost-effective method of preschool provision. I agree with my colleague John O’Dowd: we need a real and less strident debate on statutory nursery provision.
Caitriona Ruane (Sinn Féin)
No. The current level of funded preschool provision is a result of the implementation of the pre-school education expansion programme. Prior to the introduction of that programme in 1997, only 45% of children received a funded preschool education. That figure has risen to over 94% of children in their immediate preschool year in 2009-2010, and we should welcome that. Obviously, more needs to be done, and we will continue to do it. In 2009-2010, over 21,000 preschool places were offered through the pre-school education expansion programme in both statutory and voluntary nursery settings. In that year, DE invested over £50 million in the preschool year, which is a non-compulsory phase of education but is highly valued by parents.
Sure Start aims to work with parents and children under the age of four to promote the physical, intellectual and social development of the children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, to ensure that they are well prepared for school and later life. Services are provided through a targeted and holistic approach, which brings health, education and parenting support services together in a co-ordinated way. It is estimated that over 34,000 children have access to Sure Start provision. In the current financial year, my Department is investing over £23 million in the Sure Start programme.
Members from all parties in the House made comments, and I will comment on a couple of them. I agree with the Member who made points about Hydebank Wood. I visited Hydebank Wood on a number of occasions before I became Minister, and it was one of the first places that I visited as Minister. I was very disturbed by what I saw in Hydebank Wood and the lack of provision there, and I went public with my concerns. I also visited the juvenile justice centre in Bangor. I agree that we need to deal with early years provision in a co-ordinated manner so that we can avoid difficulties in later life.
I agree with many of the comments that Jonathan Bell made. I also agree with Gerry Adams’s comments about Sure Start. I pay tribute to Gerry for the tremendous amount of work that he has done on preschool provision, particularly on the Falls Road, the Shankill Road and in other areas of disadvantage. I have visited projects on the Falls and Shankill roads. I am delighted that he chose such an important subject on which to make his last contribution in the House. I am sure that the House will join me in thanking him for the work that he has done.
I am disappointed that Roy Beggs chose this debate to suggest that children educated through the medium of Irish should not be given fair play. I hope that he did not mean that, because the rest of his contribution was very important.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
Will the Minister acknowledge that what I said was that the Minister seemed to give a higher priority to the Irish language by regularly mentioning the issue than to basic speech and language difficulties or the issues faced by those from other countries who do not have English as their first language? It was the priority that the Minister was giving to that issue that I thought was inappropriate.
Caitriona Ruane (Sinn Féin)
I reiterate the point: I am disappointed that the Member should single out the Irish-medium sector. That follows a disappointing pattern in the House. We would do well to make sure that we adhere to our statutory duties to all children, including those who learn through the medium of Irish.
I want to make a few points about funding. Dawn Purvis made interesting comments about the foundation stage. I agree with her on that. We have put significant resources into the foundation stage, as well as a new, good and play-based curriculum. For example, we have allocated £22 million to support the particular requirements of the foundation stage of the curriculum. I met trade union leaders last week, and they were unanimous in their comments about how well the foundation stage has embedded.
Since becoming Minister of Education, I have introduced measures aimed at primary education, nursery schools and units. John O’Dowd made the point that 30% of learning is done in schools and 70% in the community and at home. Jonathan Bell also referred to learning in the home. We have to continue to forge those links, because 70% is significant. It is important that we continue with those programmes. We have brought in a significant number of programmes, including reading programmes for families and schools. We want to see our schools open 24/7, not closed at 3.00 pm or 4.00 pm at the end of the school day.
We have also provided classroom assistants for all year 1 and year 2 classes, with specific funding for planning, preparation and assessment times for primary-school teachers. We have primary languages and sports programmes. We have funding initiatives to assist the children of Traveller families, and a targeting on the basis of need programme in relation to the common funding formula. There is incredible need. Mention was made of that in respect of our Protestant working-class children, and I absolutely support that. Equally, we have significant numbers of Catholic working-class children — boys and girls — who need significant support. We need to target on the basis of need in respect of all our children.
As I said, we have a new curriculum. We also brought in transfer 2010. We cannot ignore the impact of the selective system on our education system. Members rightly cited Finland and other areas that do not operate selective systems.
I was struck by some of Jonathan Bell’s points about emotional health and well-being. I absolutely support everything that he said about that. I see people jibing; I do not think that we should do that. There are important issues that we need to deal with about pupils’ emotional health and well-being. In fact, I agree about the nought-to-six strategy and those key years.
One programme that I am sure Members will welcome and for which we can have cross-party support is the Women’s Aid programme that I have brought in. In the past, Women’s Aid did very good work in primary schools, but its representatives went directly into primary schools. The programme that the Department of Education is now funding for Women’s Aid uses that organisation’s skills to train teachers, because they have a huge role to play.
The primary focus of the early years nought-to-six strategy is on education services, although that, of course, overlaps with the Department of Health and health and social care boards’ responsibilities in the case of the youngest children and their parents in Sure Start provision. We have sought to develop a strategy that reflects the drive for cohesion in relevant policies and services affecting early years so that children and parents get the best outcomes possible. The strategy will need to take account of a wide range of policies and strategies in development and in place in the Department of Education and other Departments. The issue of childcare in particular has been raised. OFMDFM has been developing an economic and policy appraisal, and the Executive will consider in due course how that work can best be taken forward.
During the consultation on the draft strategy and here in the Assembly today, concerns have been expressed that the draft strategy needs to be more broadly based and needs to provide a cross-cutting overview of the Executive’s approach to early years provision. It has been suggested that it should cover the social, care and educational needs of all young children from pre-birth to age six and those of their parents and prospective parents. A strategy of that nature would be much wider than the Department of Education’s responsibility and would impact on the Departments of a number of my colleagues in the Executive. I have written to the junior Ministers in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to request a meeting to seek their views in the first instance and to help me decide how I wish to proceed. A decision to progress the cross-departmental strategy and action plan proposed would be a matter for the Executive.
I am aware that, during the consultation, the reference in the draft strategy to the school starting age attracted a good deal of interest. It is a fact that in the North of Ireland we have the lowest school starting age in Europe. In my view, the compulsory school starting age here is too low, when compared with Scandinavian countries such as Finland. It again led the way in the latest OECD PISA survey, with a school starting age of six. Further, I believe that there is merit in considering other, less formal, more flexible approaches to the school starting age, such as that in the South of Ireland, where parents can choose to enter their children into the formal education structures at any time between the ages of four and six. I agree with Dawn Purvis’s point on childcare and preschool provision. It is important to have an open and comprehensive discussion on the subject, and I welcome the fact that the strategy has prompted this important debate.
The consultation period on the draft strategy, which opened in June 2010, was scheduled to end on 30 November. I thank all the individuals, organisations and schools who have taken the time to respond or attend one of the events organised by the Department. I am also aware that several organisations convened their own events with parents and members. I thank my colleagues on the Education Committee for their keen interest in the strategy. Indeed, from as far back as when we launched the strategy, my colleague Michelle O’Neill asked me to extend the consultation and said that the Committee would be raising that. I welcome the fact that the Committee has raised it.
The consultation has raised a wide range of issues. There is clearly significant interest among parents, schools and a range of stakeholders on the best way forward for early years provision and services in the coming years. There have been suggestions that that important area needs further consideration and debate and that the consultation period on the draft early years strategy should be extended.
Ba mhaith liom a chinntiú go ndéantar breithniú iomlán ar na saincheisteanna seo, agus ba mhaith liom a chinntiú go raibh deis ag gach páirtí leasmhar cur leis an díospóireacht agus a dtuairimí a chur in iúl.
I want to ensure that there is a full and frank consideration of the issues. I want all interested parties to know that they have had the opportunity to contribute to the debate and to have their voice heard. That being the case, I can announce that I am extending the consultation period on the draft strategy to 31 January 2011 and that we will consult children as part of that. I do not wish to delay the publication and implementation of an early years strategy any longer than is necessary. However, I want to ensure that the strategy that is taken forward has widespread support and reflects the views and concerns of all interested parties and stakeholders. I can assure everyone that I will consider all views presented and that it is a real consultation.
My primary concern will be to ensure that the children at whom the strategy is targeted receive the best possible services from the Department of Education. I know that we are in negotiations on securing further resources in relation to the overall amount of money in the Budget. If we are to seriously make a difference in the early years, I ask that all parties support the education and, indeed, health budgets for early years. I thank all Members for their contributions.
Seo ár seans le seirbhísí luathbhlianta a mhúnlú do na blianta atá le teacht agus le difear a dhéanamh do shaol gach páiste. Fiú amháin sa timpeallacht dheacair airgeadais seo, ní féidir linn an deis seo le creat láidir d’fhorbairt seirbhísí luathbhlianta a ligean tharainn. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
I am grateful for the opportunity to wind up this important debate, if Mr McCarthy gives me the opportunity to do so.
During the Minister’s response, I thought she was trying to usurp my position as the person giving the winding-up speech, because she spent more time discussing the individual contributions of Members than she did responding to the points raised by Committee members and, in particular, to those raised by the Committee Chairperson.
The Committee Chairperson outlined ways in which stakeholders thought that the strategy failed to address the integration of children’s care and education from pre-birth to age six. He said that Committee members had concluded that the strategy, as presented, failed to address the key issues or provide a clear way forward. The Minister has not responded to that today, nor has she outlined a clear way forward other than making a general commitment to write to the junior Ministers in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Committee outlined nine areas of concern, and the Minister has not responded to them. The Committee also said that there was a need for more emphasis on the pedagogies to be adopted for the early years curriculum. The Minister has not responded adequately to that point either.
The Committee Chairperson referred to the event that the Committee hosted on 17 November. I was lucky enough to be able to attend that event and was impressed by the large attendance and by the commitment of all stakeholders to the goal of achieving a nought-to-six years strategy that satisfied the needs of all children in that age group. As the Chairperson pointed out, the audience that night was made up of parents, teachers and representatives of statutory and non-statutory providers, including the voluntary, community and private sectors. The general view of the meeting was that the consultation period should be extended. One positive thing that has come out of today’s debate has been the willingness of the Minister to extend the consultation period until the end of January. However, I warn the Minister that that does not give her carte blanche. She has already had seven years to develop the strategy, and, now that we get it, we find that it is mostly inadequate and in need of major overhaul and repair. I hope it does not take a further seven years before we have the finished article.
One major concern about the strategy is that it concentrates on years three to six and largely ignores years zero to three. In her response, the Minister has not addressed that issue, but it needs to be addressed adequately in any future version of the strategy. That point has been made time and again by many stakeholders, not only at the event but through evidence given before the Education Committee. Stakeholders expressed their concerns at that event. However, there was a general feeling that the Minister’s officials did not respond adequately to those concerns, and, unfortunately, the Minister has not responded adequately to them today either. Hopefully, between now and the date on which the consultation ends, the Minister will have time to take on board the points made during this debate and will readjust her approach accordingly.
The Chairperson of the Committee mentioned the three major issues that were raised at the consultation event. The first issue was the need for the integration of early childhood education and care, which has been proven to improve children’s outcomes and counteract child poverty in other jurisdictions. The second issue was the need to address the nought-to-three age group. That has been a missed opportunity so far. We need to bring a continuity of approach to children’s formative years, and this is an opportunity to bring together services for children and families. The third issue, which the Early Years organisation mentioned, was the need to commit to the development of an integrated strategy for all children aged nought to six and to clearly articulate how education and care services for children aged nought to three will be enhanced and developed. The Department of Education should really be the lead Department on that. Those are the challenges that the Minister faces at this stage.
Many Members — around 14 in all — contributed to the debate, which was certainly constructive. One of the constant themes in Members’ speeches, including those of Mary Bradley and Roy Beggs, was the need for early intervention. Mr Beggs pointed out that it is better to invest well in early years education so that we do not need to invest in building prisons later on. Mention was also made of the first 18 months of a child’s life and of how critical it is to positively influence a child during that period. The neurological evidence suggests that that is a period when children need positive intervention and respond to it more readily than they do when they get older.
Mrs Bradley and Mr Beggs also referred to the work of Professor Heckman and the benefits of investment in early years education and the outcomes that that delivers: better personal relationships for the people who are involved in it, who make better citizens, contribute more positively to the economy and are less likely to engage with the criminal justice system. Those are all positive outcomes. Early years education also obviously enriches the personal life of the child who benefits from it.
My case is clear: we should ensure that the strategy that we formulate between and across Departments has the best possible effect and impact on children. The point was made that every pound invested in early years education saves £17 later on. Therefore, not only does it enrich individuals and society in the ways that I outlined, but it has a financial benefit.