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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:11 pm on 27th April 2011.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield 3:11 pm, 27th April 2011

It has been a good debate. I have been interested in early years for a long time. When I became the Chair of the then Select Committee on Education and Skills, the very first report I did was into early years. Some Members who were on the Committee during that inquiry are still in the House. We thought it was pretty groundbreaking of us to hire at the beginning of the inquiry someone with a PhD who was expert in the development of the child’s brain. We had the benefit of wonderful research people such as Professor Kathy Sylva, who was a significant influence in understanding that a child’s life chances are largely determined by early-years stimulation before 22 months. That is quite startling and was very new thinking 10 years ago.

I have always been absolutely committed to the idea that what we do for children in their early years is of the utmost importance. It sometimes irritated me, as the years went on, when we did inquiries about every other bit of education right through to higher education, that we seem to live in a strange world in which we take things for granted and spend less on early years and more as children get older. I heard a small voice constantly telling me—you will remember sharing this view in your former role, Madam Deputy Speaker—that we should be spending more money on the earlier years and tailing off spending in later years. The amount of resources we put in does matter, but I agree with Richard Fuller that what is important is how that money is spent and the quality of the spend.

Interestingly, the very last inquiry I did as the Chair of the Committee was also on Sure Start and early years. In parallel to that last inquiry we did another into NEETs—those not in education, employment or training. There is a very strong relationship between what happens to a child in their first months and years and whether they are likely to end up as a NEET. That link is vital. Stimulation is important and it is sad to go into a school or other setting and be told by people there that they can identify pretty accurately very early in the life of a child whether that child is a potential NEET. That is depressing. I am sure that everyone in the House would agree that, although we came into politics for all sorts of strange reasons, most of us share the belief that all human beings ought to get the chance to develop the potential and the skills that they were born with. For me, that is what the Sure Start and early-years stimulation debate is about. I am sure that we all want to ensure that potential is developed to the full and that we do not want talent to be wasted. We live in a competitive world and I am unashamed to say that I want our country and our economy to be successful. I want it to grow and do wonderful things. If I were to speak in the next debate, I would say that there is a clear link between what happens in a child’s early years and their potential to go to university and make the most of their life.

This issue is partly about resources and partly about spend, but it is also about quality and how it is monitored. It is very difficult to find really good experience and then to spread it fast. That is even more difficult given that the nature of poverty is changing. I know that I am in danger of boring the House on this point because I keep coming back to it. For so many people in the House and outside it, their idea of poverty is a concept from 30 or 50 years ago—a kind of static poverty. When I go to early-years settings and schools up and down the country I find a dynamic poverty. I am talking about children not being in the same school for very long and moving on as their parents move. I am talking about a dynamic in which people come from other countries and do not have the English language at home, perhaps having a foreign language on their televisions. I am talking about children who get very little support from the home environment. The nature of poverty has changed and, like all human beings, we tend to live a little in the past. We have to recognise the nature of poverty today, the challenges of deprivation that a child in poverty has today and the fact that they are different from the past.

One inspiring thing about the work on early years is the fact that the quality of research is better than any educational research I have come across. I have often criticised the quality of educational research in some of our universities. There are complex reasons for that, such as a lack of good salaries and a lack of attraction to those areas of research, perhaps because there are much better salaries for those who stay on and become successful head teachers or principals. The quality of early-years research has been outstanding and we have to build on that.

We also have to be able to evaluate success. It is not good enough to go along anecdotally and say, “I saw this wonderful example of a Sure Start centre” in Southampton, Huddersfield or anywhere else and think that it is easy to replicate. So many of the successful systems that one looks at are difficult to replicate because they involve excellent people who have shown leadership and built successful teams. That is not impossible to clone—it is not impossible to have a system—but we have to realise that it is difficult. When the concept of Sure Start was originally introduced, we decided that we would go to the 500-most deprived communities in the land, but there was a big flaw in that approach because most poor children do not live in those 500 poorest communities. That is a dilemma for us all. It is more difficult than asking where the 500 poorest communities in Britain are. That does not work and there have to be more centres than that, which is why we moved to a figure of 3,500.

I think there are some ideological—no, not ideological, but intellectual—differences between us. When we looked into this issue in the final report, a couple of members of the Select Committee would have liked to have gone back to a smaller number of centres. I do not think that that was callous or because they wanted fewer centres; I think it was because they thought that we could probably do better over a period of time with 500 centres and that dissipating talent as a resource was dangerous. I disagreed with that, as did the majority of the Committee, on an all-party basis, because we thought that 3,500 was the number necessary to reach those poor children wherever they were in our country. There is a lot to learn and my worry is that the methods for assessing quality are not refined enough. I do not think that Ofsted has been good enough in the past; it has been improving but still more needs to be done in terms of assessing and spreading good practice.

One of the wonderful things about our Sure Start and children’s centres—I hope that people agree—is that they represent the end of looking at children in bits. Previously, we would look separately at a child’s health, stimulation and so on. In a Sure Start centre, for the first time, the assessment of all sorts of bits of their needs were brought together in one place, so that a child, for whom there might be a lot of pressures and challenges, was looked at holistically. That children’s centre was a one-stop shop where the child was evaluated and got the proper help. That is not always in a building. It is a matter of outreach, finding out which child needs the help, and giving it. I agree with my right hon. Friend Mr Field that that is difficult, but it can be done.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Bedford about resources. No one wants to waste resources, but we all know what will happen if Sure Start is cut by a significant percentage. I do not care so much about buildings, although having a building near a community which people can identify and get to is pretty important. If, as is the case in the constituencies of some of my colleagues, a children’s centre that used to have a substantial budget now has £25,000, not much can be done with that. It is all about resource.

I make a plea to the Secretary of State. He always says that cuts are necessary because of the economy and the dreadful things that the Labour Government did in connection with debt. He would say that, as we would probably do in his place. Those of us who care about children and about education want him to go into Cabinet as a bruiser and a thug, to bash the table and say, “I want a budget for my children and for the future of children in our country,” and to be much more physical about it. Sometimes I think he is a little too polite when he gets round that table.