I speak as a former teacher, as someone who has served for 20 years as a school governor, as a parent and, most recently, as a grandparent. I also speak as someone who was a child from a deprived home. I can tell the Secretary of State that I really understand the difference that education makes to life chances, and I understand that education is the key to social mobility, so I was delighted when the Prime Minister said:
“I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege;
where it’s your talent and hard work that matter, not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.”
When the Secretary of State said that social mobility is a “large part” of the reason we have a Department for Education, I thought we had cracked it, but sadly I was wrong, because the reality does not match the rhetoric.
In my constituency, the average reduction in school funding is £300 per child, and Burnley FE college has had its funding cut by 30% since 2010. Those budget cuts have had serious implications for the educational opportunities of children and young people in my constituency. There are serious concerns, but in the limited time available to me, I want to focus on the provision of early years education.
I want to go right back to the beginning, to the crucial early years. It seems, at least on paper, that the Secretary of State agrees with me on that too. He has said that
“the point of greatest leverage for social mobility is the very earliest time in life.”
I absolutely agree, but too many of our children hail from homes where poverty and deprivation limit experience and stifle early learning, and by the time they arrive at school, they are already behind.
Two weeks ago I chatted with an early years teacher, who told me about a home visit she had made to a three-year-old boy who lives with his mum, dad and sister. The family have one room to live and sleep in, and they share a kitchen and bathroom with three other families. The main room is damp, and mould is growing on the walls. Not surprisingly, there is hardly any room to move around the double bed and no room for a child to run or play. Mum works days, so dad looks after the little boy during the day. Sadly he does not engage with the little boy as much as he would like because he works nights, and he has to sleep sometime. Because no one has much time and doing the laundry is difficult with a shared kitchen arrangement, the little boy is still in nappies. The teacher told me that that case is not unusual. I hope the Secretary of State will take the time to outline how that little boy and others like him fit into his plans for social mobility.
Given that sad reality, is it any wonder that so many children in this country start primary school with language and social skills that are below the expected level for their age group, and that more than a quarter of children finish their reception year still without the early communication and reading skills that they need to thrive? Those children cannot wait until primary school for those issues to be addressed.
Independent research has shown that maintained nursery schools provide the highest-quality early years education, meeting higher standards than others. They provide a different service from other early years providers. They close the achievement gap for so many of the most disadvantaged children in the country, provide expert support for children with special needs, provide family support for some of our most vulnerable children and families, and act as system leaders, supporting other early years providers in their locality to raise standards. Of course, the Secretary of State is aware of the excellent provision in maintained nursery schools, not least because of the valiant efforts of hundreds of nursery school teachers who have made the journey from every corner of this country to make their case in this place.
Even though extensive research shows that every single pound spent in the vital early years is worth £15 spent in later years, it is a sad fact that 325,000 children have no access to a nursery school teacher. That number is set to rise significantly unless the Government put nursery schools on a sustainable financial footing, recognising that they are schools and need to be funded as such. If the Secretary of State is serious about driving social mobility and raising educational standards, I ask him to recognise the phenomenal contribution that this sector makes to the life chances of so many children, and I ask that he goes beyond warm words and today makes a firm commitment to fund it for the future and announce the detail without delay.