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Early Years Family Support

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:38 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole 5:38 pm, 16th July 2019

I thank the hon. Lady for her support. It might sound funny, but it is a real event when the book arrives in the post every month. The expectation of is a thing in itself. Then there is the process of the child opening the book, talking about it with their parent, carer or whomsoever, and spending time sitting down and bonding, which, as we know from the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire, is so important in those early years. This has such a transformative effect.

I am very proud to say that there are two schemes running in my area. I run a very small scheme in Goole—the Goole and Snaith Imagination Library—which I provide all the funding for myself. I am always asking anybody local who could help to sponsor more children to cough up some dosh and put it in the pot. It is a very small scheme. Unfortunately, I could not get the local authority to pay for it, but there are 110 children in Goole on that self-funded scheme, which I run through my office and fund myself and through other donations.

In North Lincolnshire, however—this is not a political point, because my party runs both councils—in 2013 we secured funding to roll out the scheme to every single child in the area, thanks to the leadership of Councillor Rob Waltham, who is now the council leader but who previously held the portfolio for young people. Since 2013 we have delivered through the letter boxes of North Lincolnshire almost 500,000 books to local children.

The take-up rate in my constituency is about 95%, and across the whole of the borough it is about 90%. At present, 8,100 children from birth to five in North Lincolnshire are signed up to the scheme. The buy-in has been incredible. As I mentioned in an intervention, when someone has a child at the local NHS maternity unit at Scunthorpe General Hospital, the first thing that happens is they are signed up and given a basket that includes information about the Imagination Library. When the birth is registered, they are checked again to see whether they have registered for the Imagination Library. Children’s centres, health visitors and every local public service are signed up to the Imagination Library.

The council has done that without any additional funding from anywhere, in very difficult times. I am very proud of what we have done in North Lincolnshire to ensure that this is universal. Some people said at the start, “Some parents can afford this and should perhaps pay for it themselves,” but, to be frank, we took a political decision and said, “No, it doesn’t matter. Every child should be signed up, regardless of whether or not they can pay, because the benefit is beyond doubt.”

The results are reflected in our primary school figures. For example, in 2018 we were the most improved authority in the country for literacy and writing, and I think our phonics screening results were the seventh best in the country—they were certainly well above average. We have the data and it is manifesting itself in improved standards at primary school. Regardless of whether their parents can afford to buy a book every month, every child in North Lincolnshire gets a book through the post every month for five years, throughout reception and before they start school.

It is sad that the scheme drops off and ends at the age of five. A number of people write to me saying, “This is a brilliant scheme, but it’s such a shame that it stops at five.” As I have said, we have all the data and statistics showing the impact that the scheme has had. The most important data for me, however, is the testimony of local parents. When we set up the scheme, we focused it on the most challenged part of Goole, and a mother in Goole wrote to me saying, “I just want you to know that this scheme has been incredible for me and my child. I was not a confident reader, but sitting there every month with my child has improved my own literacy.”

When I was a schoolteacher, the reason that some parents did not spend time reading and writing with their children and teaching them the ABCs and 123s was not always neglectful behaviour; it was often because they lacked confidence in their own literacy or numeracy abilities. That then manifested itself in what might have appeared to be neglectful behaviour, but they were actually embarrassed that they did not have the confidence to pass those skills on to their children. I found that sad. A lot of work has been done across our local authority to address that. It was not always a matter of neglect.

I do not want to say anything further, other than that I hope the Minister will look at the example of the North Lincolnshire Imagination Library. As I have said, almost 500,000 books have been delivered to local children through their letter boxes, and that is having a very clear impact on primary school results. It is not necessarily cheap, but we have decided locally that it is a worthwhile intervention because we will turn out children and young people at 16 and 18 who will perform better than they otherwise would have done. They will have confidence in literacy that they may not otherwise have had, and that will benefit the community when they get jobs in the area, including exciting jobs at the new Siemens rail factory, which will require those skills. Whether they are small schemes, of which a number are running across the country, or big schemes, these programmes can really make a difference to children’s lives, including the 110 children in Goole who are benefiting and the 8,000-plus who are benefiting across North Lincolnshire.