Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:59 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools), Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools) 3:59 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for this opportunity to debate children and family life. It is an issue to which he and others who have spoken on all sides of the House bring not only a wealth of personal and professional commitment but a real passion, including the very passionate speech that we have just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris.

I cannot possibly do justice in my reply to the full richness of the debate. As ever, I hope that noble Lords will accept my assurance that I will provide written replies to particular points that I am unable to cover now, although I am glad that I managed quickly to ferry across a copy of Every Parent Matters to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, so that at least she leaves the House with it, even if she did not enter with it.

One key theme of the debate is that the family is not a static institution; nor is the environment around the family. Families are becoming smaller; fewer people are marrying; more are cohabitating and they are doing so for longer. Since the 1970s, the number of single-parent families has trebled, while the number of babies born outside marriage has increased fivefold.

Childhood is not a fixed state either, but constantly redefined as educational expectations, social values and social contexts evolve. As an education Minister, I believe that many of the changes that we have seen are for the better. Whereas just a decade ago we came near to writing off about half of our young people in terms of serious school-leaving qualifications, that is no longer the case. I am glad to say that social expectations are now much higher in that area, as in so many others. I include within that the expectations of our young people themselves which, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough so rightly said, are largely positive and deserve to be reported as such.

Given those broad demographic and cultural trends, let me first address the UNICEF report that has prompted this debate. The UNICEF study contains some salient observations. Let me say straight away that the Government are not in the least complacent about that. I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, said in her impressive speech: this is indeed a challenge for us all and one that, frankly, we should accept with humility.

I also agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham that to bring about change in many of these areas is a long-term project which is not susceptible to quick fixes. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that we should learn from other countries. I am sorry that she was not able to go to Finland. I have been to Scandinavia—I think I even managed to get there just before the Leader of the Opposition—and I agree that we need to learn a great deal from those countries, although I do not think that the lessons are by any means as straightforward as she may have wished to suggest. Scandinavian countries make a huge investment in childhood services and have high expectations of what those services will provide for the development of children. Those expectations are not that different from those that we have set in place.

Having said all that, it is fair to note that, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, himself accepted, the UNICEF data are mostly old and do not provide a full picture of what it is like to grow up in the United Kingdom in 2007. In particular, the UNICEF research focuses largely on adolescents, drawing as it does heavily on a World Health Organisation survey of 11 to 15 year-olds, whereas, as has been widely accepted in this debate, it is early life that fundamentally determines the fortunes of children.

Early childhood has been a particular focus of the Government's investment and I think it is generally accepted that we have transformed under-five provision, which is so vital in determining the early life chances of children. Ninety-eight per cent of three and four year-olds now enjoy free nursery education, compared to just 56 per cent a decade ago. At the end of last year, the stock of registered childcare places stood at more than 1.29 million, which is more than double the 1997 level. In the past decade, we have created from scratch more than 1,200 Sure Start children's centres, with a total of 3,500 to be opened by 2010. That will be one for every community, which will start to make the pattern of childhood services in this country much more on a par with that of Scandinavia.

Above all, the old data in the UNICEF report mean that there is no mention of the fact that, since 1997, relative poverty in the UK has fallen at a greater rate than anywhere else in Europe, which was an issue of central importance to UNICEF's researchers and something that they recognised in their 2005 report cards. In the mid-1990s, one in three children in United Kingdom lived in poverty, which was the worst record of any major European nation.

The Government have set challenging targets to remedy this situation, aiming to halve child poverty by 2010 and to eradicate it entirely by 2020. By helping parents into work and providing financial support, we have reversed a 20-year negative trend, lifting 600,000 children out of relative poverty since 1998, and 1.8 million out of absolute poverty. This has involved significant expenditure. For example, we have raised the rate of child benefit for the oldest child from £11.05 to £17.25 per week since 1997, and have introduced the child element of the child tax credit, which, from next month, will benefit 10 million children to the tune of up to £1,845 per child per year.

We have also introduced the minimum wage and, as my noble friend Lady Howells so rightly said, we have given a big boost to family-friendly working practices, which are vital to enabling parents—mothers and fathers—to perform their own duties. We have introduced paid paternity leave for the first time, we have significantly extended the length of maternity leave and the increased the rate at which it is paid, and we have given parents with young children—including, I should stress, parents who work in the City—the right to request flexible working. We have also made a substantial change to employment in making it more family-friendly, which is now more generally reflected in the workplace.

Of course, I share the disappointment of my noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie that figures released this week show that relative child poverty has risen in the past year. However, as he said, they do not detract from the longer-term achievement in the past decade. This work is continuing. In his Budget last week, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an increase in the child element of the child tax credit by £150 per annum above indexation from April 2008. We estimate that this will lift up to 200,000 more children out of relative poverty. The Department for Work and Pensions, which my noble friend also mentioned, has also just published its strategy for tackling child poverty, which concentrates on helping more lone parents into work and emphasises the family dimension in all dealings with parents. All our publications that give advice and guidance in this area take up the theme, which has been raised across the Chamber, of the role of the voluntary sector, which is so important in education, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, mentioned, and in social care and social services. We also recognise the role that the faith communities play in this area, and we have, for example, been strongly encouraging local authorities to engage with local faith providers where they can make a big difference to the quality of local provision. I entirely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that social workers also have a vital role to play in this area. He knows the measures that we have set in train and which we have debated in the House. We will have more to say about that after the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The inclusion of family structure in the UNICEF report's indicators of well-being might be taken to suggest that children in lone-parent and step families do not thrive. I want to make it clear that, in the Government's view, the quality and stability of relationships are crucial, and our policies are resolutely geared to supporting parents, whatever their individual circumstances. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, we do believe that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships in bringing up children. Equally, however, our task is to give all parents and carers, without discrimination, the support that they need to provide children with the best possible start in life.

The theme of parenting—and, indeed, grandparenting, which the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, mentioned—has been a common thread throughout the debate. It outstrips class, ethnicity, and even disability in its influence on the life chances of children. Indeed, supporting parents and instilling parental responsibility and duty—I have no hesitation in using the word "duty" in this respect—is the vital task that faces us as policy makers and legislators. I also agree that we must be very clear about what we mean by effective life chances for children. I say without any hesitation that this is certainly not a question only of education. I come to the House as an Education Minister, which I think sometimes makes the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, slightly suspicious of me because she thinks that I must want to ensure that education takes priority over all other matters. Let me be absolutely clear: the Every Child Matters agenda has five aims that are equally important: promoting children's health, safety, economic well-being, educational achievement, and their ability to make a positive contribution to society. Every Child Matters is also the primary means by which the United Kingdom seeks to fulfil the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as mentioned by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, involving as it does a radical programme of change in the development of and investment in children services nationwide.

One theme has come through very strongly in this debate. If every child is to matter, every parent must matter too. We need to do steadily more to help parents, which is why the Government have just published their Every Parent Matters report, which I am glad to note has been widely welcomed in this debate. Every Parent Matters sets out in one place what we are doing to promote the development of services for children, not only what we have done so far, but also what we are planning to do. It also acts as a guide for parents, which they find useful. My noble friend Lord Watson referred to many of the upcoming programmes set out in the back of the report, which may be useful to parents as well. For instance, local authorities are expected to appoint dedicated commissioners responsible for championing provision for parents and, from this May, schools' governing bodies will be required to listen to all parents and consider their wishes.

A number of local authorities are currently piloting transition information sessions for parents of children who are moving from primary to secondary schools, providing advice for parents at that difficult stage in their children's lives. These services will be available nationwide from next year, as set out in the document. From this September, advisers will also be on hand in every local authority to help guide parents, particularly less advantaged parents, through the sometimes worrying process of selecting secondary schools, which is so vital to the life chances of children.

Through this whole array of initiatives and support programmes set out in Every Parent Matters, we can help to prepare children ahead of significant moments in their lives. We are piloting family learning courses for parents and carers of pre-school children with basic skills needs, while the early support programme has spent £15 million over the past five years supporting young children with the most severe needs, including sensory impairment and autism. These are just parts of a whole programme of support available for parents with young children.

Lone parents have been mentioned repeatedly in the debate. Our support is particularly targeted at specific groups such as lone parents, whose fortunes have improved considerably over the past decade. Today, 1.7 million one-parent families in Britain care for more than 3 million children, a figure that is three times higher than in 1971. The New Deal for lone parents has helped more than 482,000 people into employment by helping them prepare for a return to the workplace and to secure the attendant benefits. The fact that the lone-parent employment rate stands at an all-time high of 56.5 per cent, an increase of 11.8 percentage points since 1997, will be of huge benefit to all their children. More than nine out of 10 lone parents are either working or would like to work at some point, and in-work benefits offer them incentives and critical financial aid to do so.

Let me also emphasise the importance of fathers, who are always raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in our debates and were also mentioned by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. All evidence demonstrates that the engagement of fathers in the lives of their children is vital, whether or not they live with them. We have sought to promote the responsibilities of fathers in several ways to enable them to perform those responsibilities better, from paid paternity leave to the new right to request flexible working for parents of disabled children and the under-sixes. The information duty in the Childcare Act 2006 will require local authorities to provide comprehensive information on childcare and access to local services for fathers as well as mothers. My department is currently considering how we might further strengthen support for fathers; for example, through the work of the new children's centres. The assumption that mothers are the primary carers clearly needs updating in favour of an expectation that fathers will play a full part within a parental partnership.

None the less, family breakdowns occur all too frequently. As we know from our recent debates on the Childcare Act and the Children and Adoption Act, of the 12 million children in our country, some 3 million will experience the separation of their parents during their childhoods. Many handle the subsequent domestic arrangements well, including the continuing role for fathers, but children drawn into parental conflicts can and do suffer terribly.

Through Sure Start and the Children, Young People and Families Grant programme, we are backing voluntary and community sector agencies to provide better relationship support, including more and better contact centres, an absolutely vital area of provision which was mentioned by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. The Children and Adoption Act 2006, once implemented, will give courts additional flexible powers to enforce contact orders and will give the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service additional responsibilities, including risk assessments in private law cases to highlight child welfare issues much more effectively than has been the case in the past.

High quality education and early years provision is clearly vital. The Early Years Foundation Stage will come into force in September next year, which is a single framework for care, learning and development in all registered early years settings and schools from birth to the age of five. Good early education has a sustained impact on children's learning up to the age of 10, and the framework is designed to raise standards across the sector, assuring parents of consistency in provision and closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged children.

At school level, which is also vital, we have four priorities. The first is to provide a safe and secure environment for children, in particular to tackle issues to do with bullying and hostile environments for children, which were raised so movingly by my noble friend Lady Howells and taken up by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. The noble Lord has huge experience in this area and raised a number of issues for policy development, all of which we are taking forward. He mentioned schools councils, and I am glad to say that more than nine in 10 secondary schools now have such councils. Professor Geoff Whitty, Director of the Institute of Education at the University of London, is about to report to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on how we take the work of schools councils forward, including embedding their work in the development of behaviour and discipline policies in schools much more effectively.

We have the Education and Inspections Act passed last year which includes a requirement that behaviour policies must be devised after full consultation with the whole pupil body in schools, taking up the theme explored by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that discipline in a school must belong to the children. Unless it is owned by them it will never be effective in tackling the root causes of poor behaviour, bullying and disaffection in schools. The Education and Inspections Act implements for the first time in law the recommendations of the noble Lord's own reports of the 1980s, that teachers should have a statutory right to discipline. We have just issued guidance on how that statutory right should be enacted. So I believe that we are taking forward the issues he raised in this first important area, which is to ensure a safe and secure environment for children.

The second theme is to provide truly personalised learning for all children which develops their talents to the fullest extent possible, with parents acting as true partners with teachers in their children's education. More than £1 billion has been earmarked for personalised learning up to 2008, weighted towards schools with pupils from deprived backgrounds or with low prior attainment, and for the first time in this country we are developing new vocational education diplomas which will ensure that pupils who have particular vocational aptitudes but who historically have been poorly served by the education system are given the opportunity in due course to attain the qualifications they need. We believe that this will lead to a significantly higher proportion of them staying in full-time education and training after the age of 16, including apprenticeships.

The third theme of the debate is the need for schools to be more than simply nine-to-four institutions by providing a much wider range of social support for parents and children in the holidays and after school. We have the Extended Schools Programme, which seeks to ensure that over time all schools develop into extended schools and so are able to provide those services.

The fourth theme I want to highlight as vital to the development of effective schools which educate the whole child is the one raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley. It is the importance of schools focusing not just on learning programmes, important as they are, but on values by engaging young people in support of the values of duty, obligation and mutual responsibility which are so vital to the young people themselves becoming effective parents. I agree with the noble Baroness that the churches and faith communities have a part to play in this, but schools of all affiliations take these responsibilities increasingly seriously.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, raised the issue of alcohol abuse. Let me say that I fully accept the gravity of these matters. The figures he gave are broadly correct. I would set against the fact that there is a certain amount of serious alcohol abuse taking place the fact that a Department of Health survey published today shows that the proportion of young people who said they never drink has been rising since 2001. Last year 46 per cent said that they had never tried alcohol, but that is not in any way to minimise the importance of the minority for whom alcohol abuse is a really serious and in all kinds of ways life-threatening issue for them.

Young people are one of the three priority areas in the revised alcohol harm reduction strategy, which is due to be published this summer. We are mindful of many of the noble Lord's points about the effectiveness of that strategy, and I will keep him in touch with its progress when it is published. Of course, the Government encourage sensible drinking by adults through unit labelling and health messages, and the Children Act 2004 requires directors of children's services to protect children put at risk from alcohol-misusing parents. Parental substance misuse is also clearly referenced in the new common assessment framework, which supports the early identification of substance misuse, including alcohol, and ensures that children receive planned interventions. I will have to deal with the other points in correspondence.

Parenting poses universal challenges irrespective of wealth or background, but while there are many challenges there is also much cause for encouragement. The attitudes of young people themselves are largely positive. Surveys show that most parents today spend more time with their children than their own parents spent with them. Education and standards are far higher than a generation ago, and mothers and fathers today want greater involvement in their children's lives. For our part as a Government, we recognise that parents need steadily more and better support. Our policy, as set out in Every Parent Matters, is to provide that, especially to families with the fewest independent resources. While we have more to do, there are also grounds for optimism, which was reflected fully in the contributions today.