It is pleasure to follow Jack Brereton, whose constituency I suspect shares many problems with mine. We could range widely in this debate about education estimates, but I wish to focus on one particular area: the role of our nursery schools and their importance in opening up opportunity.
I wish to begin by thanking the Chair of the Select Committee for pressing this debate. On this issue of nursery schools, I wish to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), who, from the Front Bench and the all-party group on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes respectively, argue the case for these schools with skills and passion, week in, week out.
We have to recognise that there are parts of the country where there is a deep political and economic disaffection: working-class areas where people feel, with some justification, that they do not get a fair share and that the best chances and the biggest rewards go to others and not to them. That is where education comes in. My constituency is at the wrong end of a lot of league tables. Our unemployment rate is around three times the national average; for those who are in work, their pay is around £100 a week less than the English average; we have something like three times the national average proportion of working-age people with no formal qualifications whatsoever; and we have a far lower percentage of people with higher educational qualifications than the national average.
When it comes to the cycle of disadvantage and lack of opportunity, inequality sets in early. We already know that when it comes to starting school there is a development gap, variously measured at 12 or 15 months, between children from the lowest-income backgrounds and those who are better off. If that development gap is not addressed early, it can affect people for the rest of their lives, holding them back from learning what they might have learned, cutting them off from opportunities and careers that they might have had, and reinforcing the inequality and lack of social mobility that is so prevalent in our country.
If we are to address the cycle, we have to start in the early years, and our nursery schools are at the frontline of that effort. I regularly visit wonderful nursery schools in my constituency, including Windsor Nursery School, Bilston Nursery School, Phoenix Nursery School and Eastfield Nursery School. The staff in those nursery schools do a fantastic job. They are fuelled by a passion to give every child the best possible start in life, no matter what that child’s background is. No child is written off. The staff will accept second best for no one. They are conscious of the importance of their role and, rather than be daunted by it, they are inspired by it and are in turn inspiring to others through their efforts.
When I visit these nursery schools, as committed and passionate as the staff are, they make two points to me, and I want the Minister to reflect on them. First, they say that the new funding formula, with its emphasis on per-pupil per-hour funding, does not reflect the reality of their costs. These are nursery schools with a fixed cost base. The emphasis on per-pupil per-hour funding, particularly in highly mobile areas where pupil rolls can go up and down, makes it almost impossible for them to plan for the future. They need to know whether they can employ a good headteacher. They need to know that they can invest in the development of staff. They need to know that they can continue to provide the essential help for special educational needs and for children with disabilities that they are so good at. They cannot do that adequately if they do not know what their budgets are going to be from year to year. There used to be a lump sum in the funding formula—on top of the hourly fee—that helped schools to plan in that way. That element has now gone, leaving staff living from year to year, if not month to month, without knowing what the future holds.
Secondly, nursery schools need more certainty about the future of even the per-hour funding. At the moment, the impact of the new funding formula has been tempered by transitional relief, but as we have heard that is not guaranteed beyond 2019-20. What is going to happen after that? If the supplementary funding is not continued, it will be a disaster for these schools. One federation of two nursery schools in my constituency projects a loss in income of more than £100,000 per year per school, if there is no supplementary funding beyond 2019-20.
It is good that we have a 30-hour offer for three and four-year-olds, but I would like to see a deeper and more universal early-years offer. The key point is that whatever the number of hours the Government offer, it is essential that the offer is funded properly in a way that recognises not just pupil numbers but the real-world costs of running a nursery school.
In conclusion, the way in which we treat this policy area says much about our attitude to social mobility. If we get it right and give it the priority that it deserves, we can break through some of the barriers that hold people back. If we do something on this, we can offer a real answer to some of the grievance and disaffection that I spoke of. Plenty of politicians out there are content to pour petrol on anger. That should not be our role; we should be offering a chance, not a grievance. If we are serious about it, we should start in the early years.