Education Committee

– in the House of Commons at 1:59 pm on 7th February 2019.

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Select Committee statement

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee 2:22 pm, 7th February 2019

Social justice is the defining issue for our country and is a fundamental aspect of the Education Committee’s work. We published our report on “Tackling disadvantage in the early years” this morning. I thank my Committee colleagues, a number of whom are in the Chamber—my hon. Friend Trudy Harrison and Marion Fellows—and I am grateful to the Committee’s officers and to the witnesses to our inquiry, as well as to the stakeholders and practitioners we met on our evidence-gathering visit to Manchester.

We started our inquiry last year by exploring the effect of the early years on children’s life chances. We were concerned about the apparent absence of strategy in this area. The life chances strategy promised by the Government under the previous Prime Minister was never published, and the Government’s social mobility action plan did not fully address the importance of the role of the early years. Even more concerning were reports that the Government’s flagship policy of 30 hours’ childcare appears to be entrenching disadvantage. Despite the Government’s efforts, good intentions and some good policy—I often talk to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Nadhim Zahawi, and I know he is passionate about these issues—we found that their approach is confused and lacking in direction.

Let me take the 30 hours’ childcare policy as an example of this confused approach. A policy that is intended to help parents to get back into work is a positive aspiration, but we heard that the policy is having perverse consequences that I imagine are intended. What are those perverse consequences? We heard an overwhelming message that the policy is widening the gap between disadvantaged children and those from more advantaged backgrounds. Disadvantaged children are having their hours reduced so that children from more advantaged families can have a place. The policy makes it financially difficult for nurseries to take on disadvantaged two-year-olds while more childcare is offered to more affluent parents.

It seems strange to me that an MP with children can have 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds, yet a lone parent in my constituency can have only 15 hours. Why does that matter? Because time spent in high-quality early education supports children’s development. It improves children’s cognitive and social development outcomes, and narrows the gap between the most and least disadvantaged children. Paragraph 33 of our report states:

“The introduction of tax-free childcare and 30 hours of free childcare has tilted public childcare spending towards better-off families;
while in 2016 a two-parent family on the national living wage with annual earnings of £19,000 received 6 per cent more in childcare support than a two-parent family earning £100,000 a year, the former now receives 20 per cent less in childcare support than the latter.”

That seems to me to be a social injustice. One of our witnesses called the 30-hours policy a “car crash”. Despite the good intentions, it is entrenching inequality rather than closing the gap. The Government should review the 30 hours’ childcare policy, reduce the earning cap, and use the extra funds to help fund the disadvantaged.

We heard compelling evidence about maintained nursery schools. We were fortunate enough to visit Martenscroft Nursery School and Sure Start Children’s Centre in Hulme, Manchester. In January 2018, all maintained nursery schools but one were rated as outstanding or good by Ofsted—the jewel in our education system. We were told that they achieve extraordinarily successful outcomes for children. As of 2015, 64% of maintained nurseries were in 30% of the most deprived areas. They are working really well, transforming the life chances of our very young children, and the Government should be supporting them. They are in danger at the moment because there is not a funding settlement that guarantees that they can survive. Some 67% of nursery schools believe they will be unsustainable if the transitional funding provided by the Government until 2019-20 comes to an end. Maintained nursery schools cannot wait until the spending review. Funding decisions regarding staff and places for the next academic year are being made now, and transitional funding is running out. Our report urges the Government to commit to fully funding maintained nursery schools by the end of the financial year.

Parenting and the home learning environment are key for improving children’s life chances. We heard about the significance of the role of health visitors in supporting parents in the period after birth. They are the most common source of guidance for parents, and they play a wider role in prevention and early intervention. We want local authorities to collect full and complete data on the number of home visitors and home visits conducted in their area. We asked witnesses about the best way of getting important messages about the home learning environment through to parents. One witness argued for public health campaigns to support the home learning environment, for example to help parents to understand that talking to their baby is important even the baby cannot talk back. One witness said:

“We have public health campaigns for fruit and vegetables, why not for speech and language?”

Children’s centres have a key role to play in the co-ordination of services. I was hugely grateful that the children’s Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, who is now in his place on the Front Bench, came with me to Harlow to see an integrated children’s family hub, which is a model of an excellent children’s centre. The Government planned to hold and publish a consultation on the children’s centre problem, but it was scrapped by the Department for Education. Our report states that the Department should explore promoting family hubs as a wider model for integrated services. We need to remove barriers to progression for staff. We need proper apprenticeship schemes that are clear, not confused as they are at the moment, and graduate schemes that remove barriers to progression so that we encourage the brightest and the best to continue to work on early years education.

We are excited that the Leader of the House—she is very passionate about life chances—is chairing a cross-Government working group that is reviewing how to improve the support available to families in the period between birth and the age of two. We hope that the Leader of the House will be truly ambitious, working with the children’s Minister, and truly radical with her recommendations.

Our Committee is dedicated to seeking to improve social justice across society, and our report flags up a failure by the Government to deal with disadvantage in the early years. It states:

“children who attended high quality pre-school for 2-3 years were almost eight months ahead in their literacy development compared to children who had not attended pre-school.”

We know that life chances and early intervention for our early years will dramatically transform the lives of those children, and that disadvantaged children are four and a half months behind their better-off peers at the start of school. They are over nine months behind at the end of primary school and over 19 months behind by the end of secondary school. That is why this area is incredibly important.

We look forward to the Government’s response to our report—as I said, I know that the children’s Minister is passionate about these issues—and we hope to see a proper, cohesive and considered approach to tackling disadvantage in these crucial early years of children’s lives, so that we make sure that the youngest children from the most disadvantaged communities have a chance to climb the educational ladder of opportunity.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the Chair of the Committee very much for the report. I echo his concerns about the perverse consequences of the funding regime, which have been shared with me by nursery schools in my constituency. They also petitioned the Government this week, with those petitions presented on Tuesday. Will he join me in urging the Minister to look again at the funding structure and to consider whether it might be worth tilting the funding of early years more in favour of funding the supply side than the demand side, because that might help to even out some of the bumps in the road? After all, there would be a return on our investment if we had a structure in which parents could dip into free childcare when they needed it—for instance, to attend training and job interviews—and then eventually move into employment, rather than having the upwards cliff edge that appears to be in place at the moment.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee

The hon. Lady proposes an interesting idea. I was in the House of Commons the other night when Members on both sides of the House presented one petition after another—I have never seen that before—on maintained nurseries. Yes, this is certainly something that we should be looking at.

Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

I very much welcome the report and the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. In particular, I welcome his highlighting of the fact that Government policy is increasing the divide between the most disadvantaged children and others, which is precisely the opposite of what Government policy ought to achieve. Equal opportunity for all should be the vision that we share across the House. What is striking is the link between his Committee’s report and that of the Science and Technology Committee on early intervention regarding adverse experiences suffered in childhood and the need for a national strategy, as well as the work of the Health and Social Care Committee. The Department for Education’s response to our report was deeply disappointing, effectively rejecting the case for a national strategy. It seems to me that we should Select Committees should be working together to make the case for clearer action from the Government.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and he is absolutely right. When the 30-hours policy was devised, it was all about the labour market and perhaps trying to create incentives for people to go into work, but the problem is that it just entrenches disadvantage for those who are not able to work, for one reason or another. Although I did not talk about this much in my statement, a significant part of the report is all about the home learning environment. There is a lot of collaboration, and I have no doubt that the Minister will be listening to what the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee has said and what our Committee is saying.

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the Chairman of the Education Committee for his statement, and I give him and his very hard-working and diligent Committee huge congratulations on the report. I know that it really has committed its time to this. I support a number of points that have been made, particularly on support for disadvantaged children and upskilling the early years workforce.

The report mentions level 3 qualified staff—the starting rung for the early years ladder. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that we need a more comprehensive approach in encouraging settings to put their staff through this qualification? If so, should there be Government support to cover the costs, particularly in disadvantaged areas? I echo his concern about funding for maintained nurseries. Has he had any indication from the Government that there may be a bridging loan or some support before the end of the financial year?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and remarks. We talk a lot about the problems of the workforce, which need to be recognised. There needs to be proper progression and clear qualifications, as opposed to confusion, and we need to get that right. For example, if there was a proper apprenticeship scheme, people would be paid while they were on that scheme, so the issue of the financial support bursary would be different. Once the graduate scheme is sorted, it is possible that one could look at how disadvantaged would-be professionals could be looked after and one could encourage people to teach in disadvantaged areas.

On maintained nurseries, although our report has been quite critical, there is no doubt in my mind that the Minister is very supportive of them. He understands the problems. I suspect that the House is being helpful to the Minister by allowing him to make his case to the Treasury. I suspect that if he can convince the Treasury, all will be well with maintained nurseries, but they need emergency transitional funding in the meantime so that they will still be there and some will not have to close, as has been suggested.