Opposition Day — [15th Allotted Day] — Sure Start Children’s Centres

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 27th April 2011.

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Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Secretary of State for Education 1:33 pm, 27th April 2011

That is a very fair question. The answer is yes. We are examining this matter with the sector to establish which successful interventions we can encourage and incentivise to be spread more widely. Building on the point made by Annette Brooke, I would add that some children’s centres are hugely successful at outreach. Valerie Vaz referred to how a children’s centre in her constituency has succeeded in tackling some hard-to-reach families. We know that some families resent and resist what they see as state intervention and coercion in their families’ lives, but actually they desperately need that support, so we must incentivise those children’s centres that are good at outreach.

There is something else that is critically important. There is sometimes an understandable confusion between the provision of child care to ensure a higher level of female participation in the work force, which is a good thing in itself, and child development. Those are allied but separate issues. I would like to see a renewed emphasis on child development. The original Sure Start proposals, which the Treasury developed, had a real focus on child development, and through the work that Dame Claire Tickell has led, we have sought to look at the existing early years foundation stage and build on what is good about it. The focus of the foundation years should be on ensuring that children arrive at school school-ready and effectively socialised. That will sometimes require interventions to support parenting and to raise the quality of staff. However, we can identify and support good practice, and indeed support many of the voluntary organisations, such as 4Children, that are already doing a fantastic job.

I want to stress that the changes we are talking about depend on having in place the staff capable of leading our children’s centres in the right direction. We have provided funding specifically to ensure that the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services can ensure that there is a trained cadre of at least 400 highly qualified individuals with a new depth of training in running children’s centres, and that we move broadly in the direction hinted at by hon. Members towards a vision of children’s centres leaders as people who enjoy the same prestige and esteem as head teachers. We should see what is happening in children’s centres as part of the seamless process of education that should start at the earliest possible age and, in my view, continue for as long as possible, in order to prepare people for the world of work and progression.

At a time when we have to make economies, I recognise that it is difficult to concentrate on some of these areas of debate, but we have made a good start in the last 12 months. The constructive approach taken by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and the hon. Member for Nottingham North, along with those in the sector, is something on which we can all build. It is often tempting to knock local government, but I have been hugely impressed by the way in which the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, with its outgoing president Marion Davis and the incoming president Matt Dunkley, has engaged with the coalition Government to operate constructively.

I know that many hon. Members will want to use their speeches to make points in advance of the local elections—that is fair enough; it is that time of year—but I hope that in the remainder of this debate, their speeches will continue in the tone so admirably set by the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. We all recognise the great work done by professionals in early years. I hope that we will all give some thought in the hours that we have left to how we can build on those successes and ensure that children, who are our first care and concern, can have the best possible start in life.