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It will not surprise those who know my background as a former school teacher that I want to focus a little bit on education and the literacy programme that I mentioned when I intervened on my right hon. Friend. I started teaching secondary school in Hull, sadly more years ago now than I would care to remember. When I went into that job I thought to myself, “Actually, I can really change lives in this role.” To some extent, that is true. But teaching 11 to 16-year-olds, I very quickly learned that so much of how my pupils’ lives were going to work out had already been set for them, mostly by the age of 11 and certainly by the age of 16.
When I left secondary school teaching, I became a primary school teacher and I went to teach year 1. Going from teaching 11 to 16-year-olds to teaching five-year-olds was probably the biggest shock of my life. I thought that that age would be the point at which a teacher really has a huge, life-changing impact on children; and, of course, they absolutely do. But I very quickly realised again that, by five years old, the life chances of so many of the children I was teaching had already been set for them because of their pre-school experiences, family situations, social deprivation and all the rest of it. It was incredibly sad. There were instances when a new child would be starting at the school and we would already have had pupils from that family through the school already. Sadly, we would already know the challenges we were going to face with that new child, whose name we only knew from the register, because of the situations that had already been determined for them even before they started school.
As a primary school teacher, it became clear to me that literacy was absolutely fundamental to how well a child would perform throughout their school career. Where they started in school at four or five years old very much determined where they would end up with their GCSE results at the age of 16. Those children who had a history and heritage of sitting at home and reading with their parents, carers and grandparents came to school with much better literacy rates. Their speech was also better, and they were so much further ahead than other children in their ability to communicate and interact with adults and children. For very many of them, that start set how they would perform not just in the first few years at school, but throughout their entire school career.
Not long after I was elected, I got in touch with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. As Sarah Champion will know very well, Dolly Parton set the library up because of her own childhood experiences with illiteracy. We met representatives of the Imagination Library and both my local councils—North Lincolnshire Council and the East Riding of Yorkshire Council—and we tried to set up a local scheme to support some of the poorest children into membership. It is a very cheap scheme, costing about £28 or £30 per child per year. For those who do not know about the Imagination Library, it sends children an age-appropriate book in the post every single month from birth through to five years old. This provides a really special time for families and it is a real event when the book arrives.