rose to call attention to the Government's Children's Plan (Cm 7280) and its implications for equality of opportunity; and to move for Papers.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to introduce this debate, and I look forward to speeches from all sides of the House, from the array of talent that has agreed to speak. Truly, this is an impressive list; all are committed to the well-being of children and have experience of promoting equality of opportunity for children.
When we discuss issues related to children in this House, it is always invigorating and moving. We are all genuinely concerned, including my noble friend the Minister, for children and their welfare beyond party politics. That was evident in recent discussions—vigorous ones, I might add—around the Children and Young Persons Bill. The Minister proved his patience and skill by obtaining many changes to that Bill, much to his and everyone's credit, and to its improvement.
I should declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Group on Children; I am also a school governor in London. The all-party group has a large membership, partly from the voluntary sector, and I want to pay tribute to them for their tenacity in seeking the best for children and for the excellent briefings and discussions that they instigate. I also pay tribute to the Children's Commissioner and his office for their continuous highlighting of issues significant to children and families. They held a wonderful reception yesterday in the Cholmondeley Room, where children gave presentations on what makes them healthy and happy. Again, it was shown that listening to children matters.
All of us here today believe that the well-being of children should be a key aim for any society. So, I believe, is equality of opportunity, and that starts early in life. The Children's Plan rightly puts parenting at the heart of children's welfare and achievement. We need to raise expectations and standards for all but focus on particular need, be it to do with gender, race, sexuality or disability. These are deep-rooted issues which no one initiative can tackle. This Government have done more than any other, I believe, to support children and families. There has been real progress towards equality. The Children's Plan is an ambitious, visionary and exciting document. It builds on previous initiatives such as Every Child Matters and has been developed in consultation with children and young people, parents and experts, and consulting is, I believe, a cornerstone for producing measures which truly respect equality of opportunity by respecting people.
I give two and three-quarter cheers to the Children's Plan, which is not bad. I would give three cheers if the concerns I shall express today were met. I cannot, of course, go through the whole document today and I know that other noble Lords will raise specific issues. I shall talk about implementation of the plan and refer also to the primary school curriculum and leisure facilities. More of that in a moment but, first, I want to focus for a moment on the Government's record on supporting children and families—and this does deserve three cheers.
The total spend on education rose from £29 billion to £64 billion between 1998 and 2008—a massive increase of £35 billion. There are around 2,500 Sure Start children's centres offering services to almost 2 million children and their families. More than 10,000 schools provide access to extended services in conjunction with local providers. All this strengthens community services. Total funding on children in schools has risen from just under £3,000 to just over £5,000—an increase of £2,520 or 87 per cent. There has been a large building programme for schools. Academic results have improved. For example, the number of schools where 70 per cent or more pupils gain five A to C GCSEs has risen to 891, up from 83 in 1997—a tenfold increase. Teenage pregnancy rates, thanks to a deliberate focus on this issue, are at their lowest for 20 years—the under-18 rate falling by 13.3 per cent and the under-16 rate by 13 per cent since 1998.
Some will say that there have been too many Bills, White Papers, plans and policies around children in recent years. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, a great stalwart of children's services, cannot be here today. She is, together with a few others who would have had something to say, at an EU meeting somewhere on a boat. I know her views because we have discussed them. She would have said, "I don't want to see any more plans. I want implementation and proof of it". She went on to say that if one-tenth of this Children's Plan were implemented, it would be a great achievement. I stand here today to praise the Government's record on the well-being of children but also, I hope, to open up an honest debate on the implementation of this plan.
UNICEF and other children's organisations share the concern about implementation, as does the House of Commons Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. They point to a lack of priority among objectives and the absence of a timetable for implementation. They point out that in long-term planning it is important to stick to objectives. There are now three sets of indicators that the DCSF is using: five Every Child Matters outcomes; six strategic objectives; and five PSA objectives. This will be very confusing. I hope, as does that committee, that this will all be clarified when the progress report promised by the Government appears in a year's time. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that for us.
Achieving some measurable goals by 2020 seems a long way off and surely some improvements could be apparent quickly. I think, for example, of children in care and children in custody. There are not great numbers of these children and surely we could focus efforts here to achieve speedy results. I am aware that much is being done but can the Minister give me some reassurance that clear priorities will be set and some precise interim objectives set out for the Children's Plan within the year? I cannot, as I said earlier, cover the scope of the plan in the short time available, but some central themes follow government initiatives closely: tackling poverty, placing families at the centre of integrated services, the extended role of schools, the role of children's trusts, a guarantee of play facilities, and higher educational standards. This will all be familiar and has clear relevance to equality of opportunity.
A few highlights from the Children's Plan for me are the emphasis on parenting and the introduction of parenting advisers in every local authority and the improved Outreach for Sure Start centres. Outreach often works better than a single-site service alone, however good it is. The plan introduces Family Pathfinders, especially for young carers. At last, maybe, these extraordinary young people may get some benefits and more support. There is a commitment to better short-break facilities for disabled children—a welcome inclusion. There is a promise of new playgrounds and new adventure playgrounds in deprived areas. How often do we hear from young people that they have nowhere to go and nothing to do? We certainly heard this from young people at the Children's Commissioner's reception yesterday. There will be a new child health strategy and a review of child and adolescent mental health services, action on bullying, personalised learning, a focus on gifted and talented, more attention to behaviour and discipline, encouraging meaningful staying on in education, managing risks, and sex education as part of programmes of social and emotional health. The Minister knows well that I always have said that this should be compulsory anyway. I will not go into that now. I welcome the prospect of a Green Paper on the education of young offenders. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, will have something to say on that and I am grateful, as are we all, for his passion on that subject.
Many concerns lie in deep-seated societal problems which no plan for children can solve, although it may contribute to solutions. But some issues really should be able to be addressed instantly. I have mentioned children in care and young offenders. Let me now look at leisure facilities. Yes, let us build more, but let us engage with young people in what we have—for example, local sports clubs. This happens, of course, but local clubs could tell many a story of planning problems. My noble friend Lady Billingham, who cannot be here today—she may be on the same Euro boat as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth—would say that the issue of recreational facilities is bedevilled by atrophy in planning systems for clubs. Why should it take years to get floodlighting permission or permission to set up a club or build changing facilities or have nets for cricket? This is not my noble friend the Minister's area of responsibility but can he speak to Ministers who have this brief and try to inject a sense of urgency? Young people need recreational facilities in every community and communities are sometimes denied quick and easy access to setting them up. We are all concerned about youth crime. Why do we not try to engage young people at a local level in something different?
Let me finally make a few comments on the primary curriculum. This is covered in chapter 3 of the Children's Plan. A review is announced to support seamless experience of education between phases. It will begin this year and report back by March 2009 so that changes may be implemented by 2011. Again I would ask: why so long? The review will better personalise learning and teaching while ensuring grounding in the basics. It will seek to raise standards in all pupils through a number of measures, including a strong focus on learning and numeracy, on scientific understanding, on the effective use of ICT, on reducing prescription to allow for building on previous learning, on the availability of the creative arts, sport, humanities, science and technology, personal, social and moral education, and on more learning outside the classroom.
This is all well and good—in fact it is excellent—but will the issue of testing in primary schools be addressed? I have long thought from my experience as a former teacher, parent and school governor that testing too often and too early can be counterproductive. It can distract children, teachers and parents from what education is really about, which is stimulating curiosity and love of learning.
I had the great pleasure recently of interviewing for the House Magazine that wonderful children's author Michael Morpurgo. He was emphatic that children should enjoy literature, with an encouragement to explore books and be entertained by them; a sure way to encourage reading. He thought that there should be an academy for literature. Perhaps my noble friend will take that on board. The joy of learning is the best way that we can encourage young people to maintain a lifelong interest in learning. I certainly do not want to create a generation of stressed children who regard learning as a means to passing tests.
I have expressed concern about the implementation of the Children's Plan and the setting of objectives. I suggested that it is possible to do some things more quickly. I have touched on play, recreational facilities and primary school testing. We need to be clear about what is important, what is already half-there and quickly achievable and what is really long term. Some things are urgent, such as youth justice and children in care.
I anticipate with great pleasure the words of others who will expand on my brief statement. One of the reasons for such debates is to keep children and young people on the political agenda. Not that I think that the Government will let this slip; but let us encourage them during and following this debate to bring together all their excellent initiatives and prioritise, plan and have a strategy that is timed. Let us press for a clearer timetable and a tighter implementation strategy. Can the Minister, if he agrees, try to work on that and report back to us? I look forward to the debate and to the Minister's response. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, whose speech showed such knowledge and such caring, while focusing on the practical issue of implementation, which is the most difficult and important issue. I will concentrate on one aspect of the Children's Plan; those children who fare and have fared least well in education for the whole time that I have been in this House and, I suspect, for a generation before that. It is a matter of shame that we have continued to fail so many of our children and condemn them to inferior lives for so long.
I acknowledge without reservation what this Government have done to improve their lot. What is said in this plan gives one great encouragement. I would like to give it three cheers—subject to the implementation issue—but I have one or two reservations. I have no doubt about the commitment of the Secretary of State to disadvantaged children, because in six short paragraphs of his introduction there are six references to meeting the needs of every child and saying that no child should fall behind. That shows great intention, which I greatly welcome. However, unless we can achieve what he clearly wants to, we are condemning these children to impaired lives. Even if they want to go off the academic route into an apprenticeship, so much of an apprenticeship nowadays depends on them spending time in college, which depends on their ability to read, write and engage in high-level apprenticeships.
In another context, apart from careers, I was speaking in a debate 10 days ago led by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which I referred to the need for reading and writing skills to deal with the forms that we all have to live with from the Government and local authorities. I referred to the child tax credit application form. Imagine that you are a jobbing bricklayer with irregular income trying to answer a 12-page form. If you have a big family, there are another four pages. How many explanatory notes do you have to read? There are 59 foolscap pages of explanatory notes to complete the blessed form. One must be able to read and write to cope effectively in every aspect of life nowadays.
So many proposals help us in this area, but I want to talk about the specific goals set in paragraph 35 of the White Paper's executive summary. I welcome the Government's intention to consult over them. If we are talking about objectives for 2020, we need a commitment not only from this Government but from all parties, because the worst thing for schools is to have to say, "They are changing it again". They need continuity so that they can address their energies to implementation rather than to the readjustment of starting on a new track. We need this period of consultation and to coalesce on an agreed series of objectives. I have one major reservation about them: they all refer to 2020. The issues of reading, writing and arithmetic, about which I have so much concern, cannot wait for 2020. It is urgent now for those kids' lives.
I recognise that the PSA target for 2012 is not in the White Paper, but I suggest that the target set in the Children's Plan for achievement at the end of key stage 2 should be brought forward from 2020 to 2015 because it matters so much to the lives of these people. I did not see in the White Paper—I may have missed it—that there is not a target at 16 specifically for English and maths as opposed to all subjects where there is a target for five GCSEs at a decent level. I would like there to be one so that there is some explicit commitment to lifting what is achieved at the end of key stage 2 to 16 year-olds.
I stick to 16 year-olds because that is long enough to wait for another target to be set. Those are my two main qualifications, although I would add that one or two targets are so unspecific that it would be difficult to judge whether they are being met. Perhaps that issue can be addressed during the consultation and more specific targets put in.
I turn to specifics—one inevitably tends to ride one's own aged hobby-horses—and, first, to the extended school day. For children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds that is a key element in any commitment to rescuing kids from disadvantage. Middle-class parents can afford any extra coaching that their children need and have the money in their wallets to take them to enriching activities. The child from a disorganised, disadvantaged poor home cannot be offered those extras, but they can through the extended school day, especially in areas of social disadvantage. That needs to be a continuing high priority with the teaching resource allocated to obtain the best from it.
The Nuffield Foundation has raised the importance of break time. It can be used creatively and I was glad to see in the plan the commitment to 3,500 refurbished playgrounds and to obtaining several thousand qualified playworkers. I regard that as part of the kind of service that schools can offer to children from disadvantaged homes in particular.
I again touch on my hobby-horse of summer-born children. I am glad that that has been picked up in the White Paper. While I accept the comment in it that, if it were offered, parents would hesitate to take the advantage of starting a year later because the pupil would lose a year's schooling, by the time that took effect, schooling would be compulsory until 18 years of age, not 16; it would not be such an issue. We could offer the child and the parents an entitlement to have the extra year. I would not see that as a disadvantage and, in the light of experience, it deserves to be on the agenda.
I would like to say a word about the tutors proposed for every child throughout his or her school years. That is excellent. They need someone who knows them and to whom they can go. But at a couple of schools that I recently visited I picked up the idea of a tutor group of children of different ages, whereby the youngsters have a buddy who they can turn to in the playground or wherever, if they are in trouble. It is a useful concept. I have seen how the little group comes together, say, once a week; they get to know each other and help each other. The tutor group is a useful extension of the tutor idea.
I have spoken previously about the important issue of managing well the transition from primary to secondary school. At a point when so many children move from a small school, where they are personally known and have a "good shepherd" teacher who looks after them, into a school that is two, three or four times as big, with no good shepherd, and when they are already behind, they have had it. I fear that that happens all too often. Therefore, the issue of transition for those who are behind is crucial. The White Paper speaks of a curriculum with continuity. That is excellent and is essential for languages, for example. But we have to address this issue beyond that. It is a question of melding the two teaching styles of primary and secondary, whereby, in their last year at primary, pupils begin to have experience of moving to another teacher in another classroom. Reciprocally, at the secondary school, they spend perhaps a third to a half of their time with one teacher who becomes the good shepherd in the first year, when the level of learning is not all that elevated. The issue of transition is important to meet the needs of, and show a good pathway to, those who are disadvantaged.
What is said about excluded children, who are among the most disadvantaged, especially if they have problems of attitude and the way that their minds are made? These people really need money spent on them.
I say in conclusion that it is important, when you are investing all of this money on particular things, to make sure that the schools spend it in the way that you want them to spend it, and it does not go to other objectives driven by the performance tables—which is all too likely to happen. I do not know how to work that trick, but we must tackle that. This is a great White Paper. If we can work on it together, it will be greater yet.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for calling this debate and for focusing upon equality of opportunity for children. This means not simply equality of opportunity to succeed in later life but opportunity for children now to enjoy their childhood and to play, for those from secure homes with anxious parents, to take risks and, for those whose homes are already risky, to experience some security.
I am never quite sure in a debate like this whether I should declare interests, but we all have them. I am a parent in a diocese with more than 100 church schools, a co-sponsor of an academy, and I have associations with many children's charities. I suppose that the most dangerous of those interests is being a parent, and I am glad that my children are not here to listen to me pontificate about children.
One refreshing feature of the Children's Plan is that it says clearly that parents and families—not Governments—bring up children. That that this might need to be said at all would have seemed ludicrous once, but at least we can be grateful for it now. It puts the rest of the plan, which I welcome—as did the noble Lord, Lord Dearing—in perspective. We know that what happens at home has a massive impact on children's education. We all know of some children who overcome a dysfunctional or inadequate upbringing remarkably—but many do not. The focus on parents is welcome, and to do so in the context of extended school provision seems right. I agree entirely with all that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, has just said—especially since surveys of parents consistently show that they desire the co-locating of services, especially when these are available on a drop-in basis.
I shall confine my remarks to the value of the extended schools programme, but I will refer also to the Children's Trust model, whereby the local authority commissions services for families and children from a diversity of providers. It is a very good model, but it involves a change in the local authority mindset that is not yet evident everywhere. I want to talk also about the social contract between parents and schools envisaged in the Children's Plan, which must be easily the most interventionist proposal that it contains.
One key theme that has emerged from evidence submitted to the Children's Society's Good Childhood inquiry has been the need to develop personal and social skills—one of the main aims of the Children's Plan itself. I hope that this will be recognised in the review of the primary curriculum, since those early years in school are crucial for later achievement and confidence. The development of good communication skills is fundamental and the poverty deficit is not always one of parental income—it can be of parental engagement. Put simply, children whose parents do not converse with them, or children who are shouted at or are limited to passive receiving in front of a television or computer screen, are not well placed in our educational system. That is why the extended schools agenda is so valuable.
I take two examples from church schools in radically different settings—one a rural primary in my diocese, the other a Church of England secondary school in Wigan, featured in an article in the Guardian this week. The Hesketh Fletcher high school has around 800 pupils. Nearly half of them come from the Hag Fold estate and many have serious problems coping with school life. At least 50 of them were in danger of permanent exclusion. Last November, Phase 1 Base was created—a flat on the estate, away from the school, that is well equipped and well furnished, with a living area, computer rooms, places for quiet learning and places for eating: a home, really. Here, children who are among the most alienated from education learn with a high teacher/pupil ratio—about one to six. House parents take over from teachers at the end of the school day and a meal is provided, with everyone gathered around one table, before homework is done. There is a chance to develop a different rhythm in life. This sort of home from home may be new, but it is not designed for the cotton-wool kids from risk-averse homes—it is for children from risky homes, where drug addiction, unemployment, casual violence, mental illness and parental imprisonment are common.
One striking thing about the Good Childhood inquiry is that when children themselves are consulted, many who have not experienced a good home have more than an inkling of what it is—70 per cent say that loving parents in a good home is what makes childhood happy. I suppose that one thing that we have to do in relation to our extended schools programme is to introduce more children to the idea of what a good home is like.
However, there is another side to all this, as the Good Childhood inquiry has revealed. While one group of children needs security, others are overprotected. A quarter of all children aged between 11 and 15 have never been to the park or the shops on their own. That is where I think a constructive strategy on the value of play—especially outdoor play, which enables children to achieve independence in life—is good, and the Children's Plan recognises that.
The other school that I want to mention is in my own diocese. It is in Stibbard outside Fakenham—a village of just a few hundred people. It is a completely new church primary school, opened a couple of years ago, and has been deliberately sited in its rural location to ensure continuing vibrancy of life in a rural community. Attached to the school is a well equipped children's centre, which provides childcare and is also the base for a host of extended school activities. One big success story has been the African Drumming Club—just what you would expect in the Norfolk countryside. It has a set of 30 drums and parents and children are actively involved. One crucial thing in the extended schools programme is that it is a question not just of occupying children outside the normal school day but of engaging parents and children together in constructive activities—something that does not take place in the way that it should even in some of our more secure homes. The parents at the Stibbard school were consulted recently and they said that they wanted more sports-based and arts-based extended activities. If there is an issue, it is that the care provided through the children's centre has to be paid for, whereas much of the extended schools programme is free or at nominal cost, and that creates a tension between the children's centre and the school. In addition, some of the families which most need the provision—for which grants may need to be gained—may be the most reluctant to seek it.
That raises a wider problem, which I ask the Minister to address. My question is: what happens with parents who themselves had problems at school? Many parents were alienated from education in their youth and see school, at best, as irrelevant or, at worst, as a threatening environment. When all this support is associated with the school, will those parents access it so readily when it is focused on what they consider to be a threatening environment? I should be interested to know whether research is being done into whether the extended schools programme is successful in drawing hard-to-reach families into its ambit or whether, as I suspect, it exacerbates social exclusion. I applaud the intention but recognise that there are real difficulties here as well.
There is certainly a welcome from these Benches for the Children's Trust model, but local authorities need to manage the balance between their role as a commissioner of services and their role as a provider among other providers. The diversity of provision, which I see as being behind this model, is significant, yet it is very tempting for local authorities, which themselves may be funding small projects run by charities or churches within children's centres, to incorporate that fully into their own provision by taking on the workers as local authority employees. That may seem administratively efficient but it means that there is much less diversity of ethos and provision. That is not the way to foster creative partnerships and it seems rather statist in character. There are a few stray signs of this around and they could become a worrying trend.
Finally, the social contract between parents and schools is a prescriptive intervention in a plan that focuses on supporting parents and families and could be a rather significant imposition on the day-to-day running of schools. I realise that the Government intend to consult on this but there is a lack of reference here and elsewhere in the Children's Plan to consultation with children and young people. That has been one of the real strengths of the Good Childhood inquiry because what worries children may not be self-evident to parents and teachers. For example, in that inquiry, a third of 2,500 children said that their biggest worry about school was bullying. That seems a very significant statistic for us to consider—that a third of our children are scared of being bullied in school. So any consultation on the new relationship between parents and schools must include children and young people themselves.
I welcome the talk in the Children's Plan of developing a family policy for the 21st century—the introduction of a personal parent-held record from birth to age 11 seems emphatic in its symbolism of the emphasis on parents raising children, but there are still a few statist tendencies around, which I hope the Minister will endeavour to limit.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for bringing this debate on the Children's Plan to the Floor of the House. I welcome the opportunity to comment on some of its details, with particular reference to equality of opportunity. Like the noble Baroness, I looked forward to reading the report and from an initial reading of its chapter headings, I hoped for new and innovative ways of keeping children and young people on the path to success. However, certain parts of the report impel me to ask some questions of the Minister.
The report tells us that experts have highlighted that the curriculum should help children move seamlessly from nurseries to schools. However, at no time did it show how the four points highlighted by Sir Jim Roper will impact on what has already been done in schools.
The report also refers to personalised learning that will put children and their needs first and suggests moving to a more sophisticated approach to be made standard practice across the system. However, in multicultural Britain, will the resources be available to meet the needs of each child or will we, yet again, have to change course? The aims described within the report are noble and worthy. We know there has been some progress but will it be sustained, and, if so, assessed in all schools?
The report refers to parents as partners in learning—again, a noble aim—but says nothing of how parents will be supported in this type of involvement. There have been previous such initiatives but a high percentage still remain outside the loop. Will the Minister say how this will be managed in any future plan?
The report refers to the best start in early years—how will this be achieved in practice? Even with Ofsted, children are still failing in large numbers. There are large gaps and only a small percentage appears to benefit. The report tells us that key stage 1 teachers and early years practitioners should look together at the early years foundation stage. This is common practice in some schools, but in all too many, it becomes a bolt-on. How will it be enforced?
The report speaks of stimulating new talent, of different paths to the same ends, but how confident will teachers be in developing a curriculum and delivering it? Again, there is reference to ongoing assessment. However, should we not be careful that there is not too much assessment and not enough training to achieve good quality teaching?
Reading through, one can be lulled into thinking that this is all very good, but questions remain. With classes where as many as 15 languages may be spoken, lifestyles are different and are often outside the teacher's experience, can any school deliver all these aims? If not, what percentage would be seen as acceptable?
On box 3.5, which comes later in the report, if we take out the obvious reasons, the question still remains: why do schools continue to have children who need to catch up? How will what is proposed in this report achieve better results than the things that already happen in schools? Can we tackle underachievement in specific groups? It is difficult to see how this will be different. The schemes aimed at tackling barriers fail to take into account the sorts of children whom the teacher meets in the classroom each day.
We are told that schools found the reading recovery programme much too costly and stopped the practice, even though some had trained teachers for this service. The projects in the main ceased to exist soon after the training of the teachers.
The report talks about smooth transition, but how will the plan help summer-born children to close the gap? I fail to see any reasonable access for those children.
On gifted and talented children, I have met teachers who say that, although this is talked about, there is no great impact on the children themselves or on the schools. Because of my background, I see education as the only means of upward mobility.
The report, although beautifully presented, will in my opinion do little to achieve its goals. It has merely rehashed some of the things that have already been tried, so my last question is: who trains the trainers?
I trust that my contribution does not sound too critical, but I feel that the authors did not quite understand the need to recognise the real differences in cultural backgrounds, which must be considered as one provides educational experiences for all children. Differences need to be identified and addressed.
Let me highlight some other points. First, communication is often neglected; teachers and children are not communicating. Secondly, we need to look at how society itself impacts on children. Thirdly, we need to look at who goes to work and who nurtures the children at home. The sexes, the space, the time, learning, recreation, protection and the materials that are used in the school are all points that need to be considered and consulted on before a plan is drawn up. Even the make-up of the panel needs to be looked at.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on securing this debate, which is, after all, about planning for the future well-being of the country. I support wholeheartedly her remarks about implementation and incremental change. The DCSF has produced what is in many respects an effective analysis of the challenges faced by children, carers, parents and educators. It represents moves in the right direction in developing a strategy for helping our children and young people to enjoy a happy, secure and emotionally and educationally rewarding childhood.
I should like to comment on three main points. The plan is rightly wide-ranging and ambitious but, in spite of appearing to be all-inclusive, it inevitably has gaps. First, it is quite right that the Children's Plan recognises that poverty blights the present and future lives of too many children and that changing that situation is essential. The need to continue to fight to reduce the number of children living in poverty is acknowledged as a key motivation for creating and implementing the plan. However, it is not only poverty that needs to be tackled. The plan says:
"Particular groups, such as disabled children and those from black and minority ethnic groups, are especially likely to live in poverty".
That is true, but it is also no accident. There is a set of complex reasons why that is the case, but racism and discrimination are hugely significant. It is not only the direct impact of discrimination on children that needs to be addressed. The plan states that in relation to further education:
"The equality and diversity of the workforce is at the heart of the strategy".
What are the mechanisms that will deliver on equality and diversity in FE—and, for that matter, elsewhere in the education system? We have struggled with that issue for decades and still not managed to achieve either real diversity or equality across many of the professions involved with working with children and young people.
Race, disability and gender inequality blight people's lives too, and as a society, we have yet to identify the discourse that will enable us to discuss those openly and honestly alongside the issue of social deprivation. I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids: my concern is that such subjects—racism and other forms of discrimination—when not explicitly raised may be submerged and therefore not adequately addressed or factored in as issues that shape the experiences, attitudes and life chances of children and young people.
Secondly, despite the substantial work that museums, libraries, galleries and the performing and visual arts do with children and young people in all kinds of settings, I was disappointed to note that the only specific mention of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that I could see in the plan related to play facilities. I should have liked to have seen the arts and culture entitlement for children and young people strengthened in the plan for a number of reasons. It can help children articulate difficult emotions and painful experiences in a safe way. It contributes to building self-esteem and a sense of self-worth. It can encourage teamwork and be the inspiration to achieve individual excellence. A wide range of transferable skills can be learnt that can lead to jobs in the cultural sector and outside it. Children and young people relish the opportunity to engage their imagination and creativity; they actually enjoy doing it. Some research has indicated that engagement with high-quality creative work can improve performance in both other areas of academic work, including literacy and numeracy, and behaviour and attitude in school.
Clearly, the Government see the potential value of using the arts and culture in a variety of settings, and have invested substantial funds in the area. For example, the Find Your Talent scheme builds on the strengths and successes of the Creative Partnerships programme. Creative Partnerships enabled high-quality participation in arts projects in schools in some of the most deprived areas in the country. Related to this subject, the Care Matters action plan describes a pilot scheme on social pedagogy. That methodological framework, it is suggested,
"provides a theoretical and practical framework for understanding children's upbringing. It has a particular focus on building relationships through practical engagement with children and young people using skills such as art and music or outdoor activities. It provides the foundation for training those working with children in many other European countries. In a residential care setting, it brings a particular expertise in working with groups and using the group as a support".
I welcome that focus on trying to mitigate the negative impact on children and young people of being involved in the care system by injecting a fresh perspective on the role and remit of social workers. I look forward to seeing the results of the pilot scheme, and I will be interested to see whether there are other contexts in which it may be used to beneficial effect in addition to residential children's homes.
The third gap that I point to briefly concerns refugee children. I am grateful to the Children's Society for a briefing on some of the issues raised by that omission. Those young people come under the jurisdiction of the Home Office, which immediately sets them apart as not our children but "others". It stigmatises them and identifies them as a problem. We need to safeguard those children as much as we would wish our own children to be safeguarded, because they are at their most vulnerable and disfranchised when they are locked into that system. We need to ensure that they are safeguarded and cared for; not treated as though they were actual or potential criminals.
In summary, I am broadly in favour of the strategies laid out in the plan. Indeed, in some respects, it is hard to argue against many of the provisions and the underlying ethos. Who does not want our children to be happy and to have good lives? However, it poses a number of big challenges that it perhaps does not address wholeheartedly. For one, I struggle to see the coherence and consistency between stigmatising young people as thugs to be hounded and harassed in their homes to give them a taste of their own medicine, which I believe the Home Secretary intends to say today or has said, and some of the ethos and the feelings that are outlined in the various plans that we have been reading.
Related to that, how do we bring together all these different components—the action plans, policies and strategies—that continue to emerge? How will we put together Every Child Matters, care for kids, Care Matters, theChildren's Plan and the forthcoming youth crime action plan to make a coherent whole, as well as integrating the rights and entitlements of refugee children to mental and physical well-being and security? Bringing all these areas together must surely be crucial to ensuring the effectiveness of the project overall. It is also absolutely essential to examine, to understand and to mitigate the impact of racism and all forms of discriminatory attitudes, practices and behaviours if we are really to get to grips with the problems that stalk some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised young people in this society.
My Lords, I join in expressing gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, and in congratulating her on calling your Lordships' attention to the plan for children. It is on the whole an excellent plan, but it must be made to work. An enormous omission in it has been highlighted by my noble friend Lady Young of Hornsey: the absence of any emphasis on creative work with children and young people. That absence is significant, and I hope that the Minister will reassure us that although money is obviously being allocated to all the other areas that are mentioned in the plan, it does not indicate a withdrawal of funds or facilities for the arts, and indeed for sport. I was rather depressed, as I think my noble friend was, by play areas being the only reference to this kind of physical activity, which is so enormously important to children. My noble friend Lord Dearing mentioned the absolute necessity of ensuring that local authorities do not divert the funds that they are given to other activities than the ones for which they were meant.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, has asked us to consider the implications of the plan for equality of opportunity, which inevitably calls our attention to education as a necessary first step. There are two groups of children for whom equality of opportunity is absolutely crucial. The first are those who are dyslexic. Here I must declare an interest as the president of the British Dyslexia Association, but I must also congratulate the Government on their proposal to allocate money for improving initial teacher training so that young teachers who are beginning will be much more able to identify children who are either plainly dyslexic or at risk of being so identified later. This is excellent, but there is no point in identifying such children unless they have access to specialist help as they go along.
The emphasis must be on specialist help, because the usual solution of many schools is to allocate a teaching assistant to those children. Such children may very often be taught almost entirely, or helped along the way, by teaching assistants with no training in the teaching of dyslexic children. These teaching assistants, with the best will in the world, may actually succeed in worsening the condition of the child because the child will not improve without specialist help. That child will find a lack of progress particularly depressing and will lose motivation. It is therefore extremely good news that the Government have now promised a pilot scheme to ensure that every dyslexic child will have access to specialist teachers. I ask the Minister to let us know how soon this pilot may be put into practice and how soon we may hope for a general assumption that children who are dyslexic will have access to its specialist teachers in small groups or one to one. As I said, the news on that front is really very good, and I congratulate the Government on having listened, taken advice and acted on it.
The second group that I wish to mention is not so fortunate by any means. These are autistic children, especially autistic children who have high intelligence. We are taught that we must distinguish children with learning difficulties from those with mental illness. I have great difficulty with this, because I have no satisfactory definition of what counts as mental illness except that is consists of conditions held to be the province of psychiatrists and other doctors rather than of teachers or educational psychologists. However, this is a strictly circular definition and of no practical value.
Most of the research that is carried out on autism is the work of academic psychologists who do not especially care about the distinction between mental illness and learning difficulties. All they know, and all we have learnt from them, is that intelligent autistic children cannot be cured, but that their talents need not be wasted if, and only if, they are educated in an environment in which they can learn to feel at home, to feel unthreatened by their contemporaries and to be able to experience a degree of stability in their surroundings so that they can pursue their often remarkable interests. They will remain sufferers from autism or Asperger's all their lives, but many of them will make a huge contribution to society if their education has been properly supervised and properly provided and if they have not suffered too much by being in an inappropriate educational environment.
For such children, it makes no sense at all for local authorities to insist that they be taught in the mainstream classroom. This is enormously important. I have the vastest postbags, as I am sure many other Members of your Lordships' House have, from parents who are in despair about their children who have been diagnosed as suffering from Asperger's and who simply cannot manage in an ordinary, large, mainstream school. Local authorities are undoubtedly extremely obstinate about such children, because for them it is extremely expensive to send children to small schools that are either non-maintained or even private. For such children, however, small schools are incredibly important. At one time, the Minister spoke of the provision of small schools, at least among mainstream schools. Will he say whether that plan has gone forward and whether small schools or special schools are coming into existence for children who are of high ability but who need the very particular environment that these clever Asperger's children, who are mostly boys, need? I would like to be reassured that although this is not mentioned in the paper, it is in the mind of government.
The Children's Plan speaks of children who, as they say, "fall behind". But these children do not fall behind; they are often far ahead of their contemporaries in some respects, but they are radically different. I hope the Minister can assure the House that whether they are considered to pose a medical or an intellectual problem, they are noticed as needing special consideration in any plan for children. Only then can they possibly approach equality of opportunity in later life.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Massey for bringing this important debate forward today. I am well aware of her passion for children, as reflected in her opening speech.
I welcome the Children's Plan for England, which is very good. However, I was somewhat surprised to see in the executive summary that it aims to make England,
"the best place in the world for our children and young people to grow up".
On page 15 it says:
"By 2020 we want England to be the best place in the world to grow up".
I feel that this is the wrong attitude for the Government of the UK; they have a plan that specifies England as the best place for children to grow up in. I feel that Wales is the best place, but surely we do not have to be nationalistic about this. Working together in government at Westminster, in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, doing our best for all children in the UK, must be the way forward to ensure the best for our children. We should be working together for the good of children, learning from each other's experience and from what has been achieved by the devolved nations. I can speak only about what is happening in Wales, and about where other parts of the UK have followed the Welsh example.
The first example I give is that of the Children's Commissioner for Wales, who was the first such commissioner in the UK. Now there are children's commissioners for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Yesterday I attended the "11 million reception" hosted by my noble friend Lady Massey. There are 11 million children in England, and some of them were at the reception. It was really great to meet and talk to them. I also met the Children's Commissioner for England, Professor Sir Albert Aynsley-Green. He said how much he envies the Children's Commissioner for Wales as he has so much support from the Welsh Assembly Government. The post of the Welsh commissioner differs from that of the English commissioner in that the post is independent. The commissioner reports to the Welsh Assembly, but he is not guided by it. The sentiments expressed by the English commissioner reflected how much he envies the Welsh commissioner. It is a good example of how the countries of the UK can learn from each other for the benefit of all our children.
Many topics mentioned in the Children's Plan are UK-wide and not exclusive to England, such as the Sure Start children's centres. They have been a great success in Wales, as they have in England. That is another good example of a UK-wide policy working well not just in England but in other parts of the UK.
Another example is that of tackling child poverty. The Westminster Government have what I would call a passion to raise children out of poverty by 2020, but to achieve that it must be a UK objective with the Westminster Government working with the devolved Administrations to make sure that it happens. The Welsh Assembly Government set out their strategy for tackling child poverty in a document published in 2005 entitled A Fair Future for Our Children. Our First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, said in the introduction that,
"Giving all children and young people a fair deal is an essential part of creating a better Wales, so the Assembly Government is determined to work closely with its UK partners to eradicate child poverty by 2020".
I believe that that is the right approach: working together to improve the lives of all children in the UK.
In February, Brian Gibbons, the Minister for Social Justice and Local Government in the Welsh Assembly, issued a written statement on child poverty. To me, this is a children's plan for Wales, setting out how we can eradicate child poverty and dealing with a range of topics. The Minister said:
"Tackling child poverty in all its forms is complex and cross-cutting. It requires strong partnership, working with our ... partners—in the UK Government and with our external partners in both the public and the private sectors, as well as within the Welsh Assembly Government itself".
The Minister's approach recognises that to eradicate child poverty, a concerted effort by all Governments and external partners is needed.
In the field of education, the Welsh Assembly Government are able to experiment in a way that might not be possible in England, as there are 700,000 children in Wales compared with 11 million in England. The Foundation Phase is a pilot scheme in schools for children in their early years. A Welsh Assembly document on the subject states:
"The early years of a child's life form a basis for their future development. It is during the early years that we have an opportunity to enhance each child's disposition to learning and to start them on the road to being "lifelong learners". The Foundation Phase is a vital part of the journey, which is based on learning through play, active involvement, and practical activities, and enhances creativity, knowledge, skills and understanding".
The scheme has proved so successful that it is to be rolled out in all Welsh schools in September. It is estimated that the future benefits of the Foundation Phase will lead to a reduction in disaffection and support those children facing disadvantage and poverty of opportunity. It is another example of what devolution is all about—doing things differently in different parts of the UK but allowing good practice to be copied for the benefit of all. Perhaps the Minister would care to have a look at what has been achieved in Wales. I am sure that young children in England could benefit.
The health of our children is mentioned in the Children's Plan, so I will mention just one policy relating to children's health. The Welsh Assembly Government recently launched its Autism Spectrum Disorder Strategic Action Plan. Wales is the first country in the world to have established a cross-cutting national strategic plan for ASD, helping an estimated 30,000 people in Wales who are either directly or indirectly affected by autism. Many of those benefiting from the strategy will be children. At its launch, Jane Hutt, the education Minister in Wales, said:
"Children deserve the best educational start in life and I strongly believe that we must ensure that they are fully equipped to meet the challenge of the future. This is particularly important for children and young people with special educational needs such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder".
Does the Minister agree that this is an excellent plan, and would he be able to look at it to see what can be learned from it so that children in England with ASD can benefit from something similar?
The Children's Plan talks about children in primary schools being given time to learn a modern foreign language. In Wales there are excellent policies for children learning two languages, starting as early as 12 months when babies go to playgroups with their mothers and where play is conducted through the medium of the Welsh language. More often than not the children come from English-speaking homes. Later, children can attend school from the age of three up until secondary school and can be taught in the Welsh language.
If a child is exposed to a second language early in life it is much easier for them to become bilingual, and later it is much easier for them to learn a third and a fourth language. There are so many opportunities in Wales for English-speaking children to learn Welsh. Would the Minister be prepared to consult the education Minister in Wales to look at the tried and tested methods used? They could then be employed to teach foreign languages to English children. As Wales is the only country in the UK to have a bilingual policy, much can be learned from it. This is another example of how we can learn from each other and raise the standards of all our children.
I could give many other examples of how things are done in Wales which would benefit other areas of the UK, and of course the devolved nations can look to examples of good practice in England. But, as I said at the beginning of my speech, we should not say that one part of the UK—in this case England—would be the best place to grow up. Let all the nations in the UK work together, on devolved and non-devolved matters, to learn from each other and to take best practice from wherever it comes. It is achievable, and, in the end, it is all about doing what is best for all our children.
My Lords, I, too, warmly welcome the Government's strategy for children. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, for giving us the opportunity to debate the plan and for all the work that she does for children. Most recently, of course, she reminded us of the importance of the Government's education maintenance allowance and the difference that that is making to the engagement of looked-after children.
I was delighted to see that the strategy makes a commitment on play, with an investment of £225 million over three years. Many years ago I worked as a children's play supervisor and I therefore recognise the importance of play. I particularly welcome the emphasis on the children's workforce and the need to further develop play workers' skills. I remember one boy who always behaved in such a difficult manner that he had to be excluded from a visit we made to Chessington Zoo. The more skilled the workforce, the easier it is to include boys like that one who might benefit most from communal visits to such areas.
In another case, the child's parent was a milkman. Although I was delighted to take the child ice-skating for the first time, to help him and see him develop, it would have been much better if the father could have been there with his son to see that happen. Again, the more skilled the workforce, the more innovative it can be. Perhaps that milkman would have had time one afternoon to go and enjoy that experience with his son. Those are the sorts of things that I welcome in the proposals.
The proposal on respite care for families with children who have disabilities is extremely welcome. Having spoken to such families I know, and I think we all recognise, how important and welcome this step is. The respite provided to these families will prevent some children having to enter care. The proposal is most warmly welcome.
We must not forget the importance of play in school. The Government will eventually oblige 17 year-olds to stay on in school or training. These children will be far more likely to wish to do so if they are enjoying school. The Nuffield Foundation research to which my noble friend referred has found that the most important issue for children attending school is their relationships with other children. Children value play times because they can be with their friends and develop relationships. It is an important factor, but the length of time allowed for play has been slipping. I hope the Minister will use his influence to encourage schools to protect play times during the school day.
I wish to concentrate on children in care, on a document related to the children's plan entitled Care Matters: Time to Deliver for Children in Care and on the impact on outcomes for children and young people in public care and on leaving care. The Government are absolutely right to wish to raise our aspirations for these children, to be concerned about our failure to ensure that they do better at school and to be frustrated at the welcome but limited improvement in outcomes for looked-after children despite substantially increased investment. I pay tribute to the Ministers who have taken forward this portfolio while I have been a Member of this House: the noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lord Filkin, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, and now the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. It is a difficult brief—these are challenging children—and the Government deserve commendation for wrestling with the problems, sustaining improvements and seeking better outcomes for them.
I applaud the prioritisation of admissions for looked-after children so that they can enrol in the school best suited to them and not in the least popular school with the only remaining school places. The position of a designated teacher for looked-after children has been placed on a statutory basis. I applaud that as it should help to ensure that this important role is given proper priority and that teachers are equipped to deliver it.
The new duty on local authorities in the Children and Young Persons Bill to place children locally where that is in the child's best interests should assist in preventing the disruption of a child's education, and the new duty on local authorities to provide a range of appropriate placements should help to ensure that that becomes a reality.
However, we must not overlook the trauma that most of these children have experienced. To do so would seriously put at risk the chances of success in these children's schooling. Sixty per cent of these children arrive in care as a result of abuse and another 10 per cent because of family breakdown. We are right to have the same aspirations for these children as for our own children, but we must not forget—thank heaven—that our children have not experienced the trauma, loss, rejection, broken relationships, abuse of trust, and often violence that many of these children have experienced. For many of these children a close relationship with an adult is a fearful thing. Paradoxically, they will automatically seek to avoid, undermine or destroy such a relationship as much as a part of them is desirous for it. Feelings arising from their past may well turn them inwards, possibly resulting in depression, self-harm and drug or alcohol abuse; or turn them outwards, possibly resulting in verbal or physical attacks on others or on their physical environment.
"Emotional understanding is central to care, and opportunity alone is not enough. From a mental health point of view, the profound impact of early trauma on children—such as the trauma arising from separation and loss—just cannot be overestimated. We know that people have a built-in propensity to react to new experiences as if they were like previous experiences, and they do not necessarily interpret good intentions in the way in which they were intended. A child may react to very good care by experiencing it as quite damaging and rejecting.
"The profound effect of trauma and loss on children also profoundly affects adults and those who care for them. Children will often identify with their abusers and be physically and verbally abusive to their carers. They can communicate feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. Carers often end up wondering why they have lost all the confidence that they had gained with their own child to parent a child. Placements often break down because of carers' feelings of inadequacy and impotence ...
"The last point that I want to make is that the needs of such children are long term. Short and quick measures do not work with these kids; they have needs that last a lifetime ... parenting is a lifelong exercise. Quite often, looked-after children are the most damaged in society. They need long-term services and have long-term needs. They probably do not need to leave home at the age of 18 and have nowhere to go back to".
We should take from that that there is a need for long-term commitment and the involvement of sophisticated health support agencies, particularly in the area of mental health. It is therefore no surprise that the Office for National Statistics found that 45 per cent of children in foster care and approximately 68 per cent of children in residential care had a mental disorder. Conduct disorder ranked highly among those disorders and can include fire-setting, theft and attacks on others. The very children who are most in need of a stable relationship are also the most prone to disrupting one. I should emphasise that there is a range of children in this group and certainly not all of them fit this description. However, a significant number of them do.
Like those who gave evidence to the Select Committee I pay tribute to the work of the specialist nurses who deal specifically with looked-after children, particularly Miss Kathy Dunnett, whom I have known for some time. She was for seven years a specialist nurse in Hertfordshire and has edited a helpful book entitled Health of Looked After Children and Young People, which I commend to the House.
The Government recognise these children's need for stability. It is most welcome that they are piloting programmes that allow looked-after children to continue in care to the age of 21 if they so wish. It was encouraging to hear the Minister, Kevin Brennan, at a recent meeting and to learn that he is increasingly of the opinion that all children and young people in foster care should have the choice of staying to the age of 21. That is most welcome. Stable relationships of this kind are exactly what is required to enable a young person to recover from earlier trauma and re-engage with the world, to study, to make loving relationships, and to have the possibility of not repeating the cycle of abuse and the recurrence of that abuse in their relationships with their own children.
However, continuing patchy access to child and adolescent mental health services jeopardises the outcomes that the Minister wishes to deliver. Mental health services are overstretched and CAMHS is a small fish in a large pond as far as mental health is concerned. Looked-after children are a small part of CAMHS' concerns; they can be at the bottom of the pecking order. Looked-after children have been prioritised in schools by local authorities and this is very welcome. Similar prioritisation needs to be given to them in health. The Government propose to introduce statutory guidance for health authorities. I regret that this is unlikely to be sufficient. A stronger duty is necessary and more effective means of monitoring its implementation need to be made available. Does the Minister recognise these concerns? There need to be more specialised child and adolescent mental health service teams focusing on looked-after children and there needs to be research into their efficacy. Specialist CAMHS are very expensive and need to be evidenced if they are to survive in the long term. Will the Minister consider this particular area?
In the Children and Young Persons Bill my noble friend Lady Meacher has emphasised the need of looked-after children, when they enter care, for improved assessments which look far more effectively at their psychological and mental health needs. I hope the Minister will think further about what she has proposed. On Tuesday I was introduced to four people by the Children's Bereavement Network.
I think I should stop now—but I look forward to the Minister's response.
My Lords, I join those who have congratulated the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on obtaining this important debate. I also pay tribute to her indefatigable chairmanship of the All-Party Group on Children. She arranges for a remarkable series of subjects to be discussed. They are all relevant and pertinent, and all meetings are chaired with a splendid lightness, as well as seriousness, which is a model of its kind. Like my noble friend Lord Listowel, I pay tribute to the Minister, not least for the courteous and speedy way that he has commented on and responded to all the various points made during proceedings on the recent Children and Young Persons Bill. It is a model of how it might happen and I wish that some of the Minister's colleagues would learn from him. That remark is, perhaps, not appropriate.
The noble Baroness said in her speech that she was two and three-quarters in favour of the plan. I join her in that. There are tremendous things in the plan as far as intentions are concerned. Like the noble Baroness, it is the implementation that concerns me most. Obviously, the group of children who concern me most are those who end up in the hands of the criminal justice system, not least those in custody. I draw attention to four particular aspects, all of which appear in the plan, and all of which are currently being picked up by good practice somewhere in the system, but none of which are being turned into common practice everywhere. If there is a theme in the implementation of this plan, I hope that it is one of picking up good practice—because all over the place there is good practice by the devoted practitioners to whom attention has already been drawn—and turning it into common practice, from which all can benefit. The "all" is the children of this country and there is no more important group to which we owe a duty of care.
I will refer to the four aspects by the paragraphs in the plan and speak to each in the order in which they appear, not the order of priority. I pick up the first in paragraph 3.61, which says:
"The pilot is aimed at improving ongoing assessment and tracking by teachers, with an offer of one-to-one tuition for pupils".
It is remarkable, going into young offender institutions and looking at the education achievement or non-achievement of these people, that many of them have dropped out of school and, when you talk to them, are unsure whether the reason was boredom before drugs, or drugs before boredom. The word "boredom" worries me because it suggests that the teachers are not engaging them. You do not engage them by repeating the blackboard-type instruction from which they have walked away.
There is, in Feltham, a remarkable piece of work called the Volunteer Supported Education Scheme, which began in 1992 and has been praised consistently by both prison and education inspectors ever since. The volunteers go in, one-to-one, to these young offenders and achieve remarkable results. For the life of me, I cannot understand why that has not been picked up in every young offender institution in the country. It works, it is cheap and it involves the local community in looking after their own. I have written to Ministers about this; I have had one reply from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, but not from any of the others. If there is to be a serious attempt by the new consortium of justice and education working together, this seems to be just the sort of project that they ought to be picking up and running with.
Secondly, I come to the problem of communication skills. The failure and inability to communicate is one of the scourges of the 21st century. Children simply cannot do it. In this House I have already drawn attention to this problem, and to a trial funded by the Helen Hamlyn Trust, where speech and language therapists were put into young offender establishments, and which had a remarkable effect. The assessments produced by those speech and language therapists highlighted problems that could be picked up by healthcare, education and behavioural discipline staff. Indeed, one of the hard-bitten disciplinary staff told me that they had been damaging young children in there until they were told that there was another way by the speech and language therapist. The trial finished in 2005, since when there have been three years of inertia. I am glad that John Bercow MP is now conducting an inquiry, and that the work of that trial is being included. I hope he will come out with confirmation of the fact that you find, in young offender establishments, children aged 15 and upwards who are unable to communicate with each other, and tend to conduct relationships with the fist rather than the mouth because they know no other way. Had those children been assessed before they went to primary school, their communication difficulties could have been alerted and resolved, enabling them to communicate with their teachers, and possibly then avoiding their ultimately opting out of school and becoming the truants that cause the problem.
Thirdly, I draw attention to paragraph 3.133, which talks about the achievements of gifted and talented learners. Unsurprisingly, in many young offender establishments you find some very gifted young people who have turned to crime out of frustration because nobody has picked up their talents and run with them. For the past 10 years, Gabbitas has been running a programme called "Tomorrow's Achievers". The idea is to identify the talented young and give them master classes that will enable them to maximise their talents. That was put to the Prison Service in 1997, since when absolutely nothing has happened. We are not talking about huge numbers, but if the Prison Service is not prepared to look at the talented and do something for them, that says to me that it is not looking at all the young people in its hands and all their needs and possibilities. This would cost the Government nothing, and it is an example of good practice that needs to be picked up.
Finally, I come to paragraph 6.68, which says:
"The new cross-government responsibilities for youth justice present an opportunity to look at how we might strengthen the approach we are taking to offending".
I agree. One of the biggest bars to any form of progress with young people at the moment is the institutionalisation conducted in the young offender establishments up and down the country that do not do the job as effectively as possible. One of the reasons for that is that far too many people are being moved around from place to place, from instructor to instructor, from mentor to mentor, from someone who could be a guide to them to another guide.
There is an opportunity in the pipeline to change all that, by picking up the ideas that have come from an organisation called East Potential in the East End of London, which suggests that a ring could be drawn around an area with about a one-hour radius from the centre, and all children who become involved in the criminal justice system within that radius should all be based on an establishment that would include within its perimeter a foyer, a place for homeless youngsters; a high-level security centre for the small few; and the facilities—the classrooms, the drug treatment centres, the workshops and other places for activity—related to that local area. The ownership of what went on with people in an area would therefore be delegated to the people in that area, which would provide a chance for consistency and continuity so that relationships between the damaged young, the young who are turning down the crime road, could be consistently looked after. They would get to know the people and could build up a relationship that might be the vital thing that kept them on the right road.
That is a splendid development because it has come up from below, from the housing associations in the East End. It has been supported by industries that can see the opportunity for training people to be employed by them. It has come from those involved in education and in drug treatment, who can see that there is continuity in the plan. It has come from social workers, who feel that it is another way of getting over the problems of inconsistency of the treatment of people in care. Here is an opportunity for the new consortium to pick up and pilot something that is designed to eliminate the problems that are created by the current situation.
As I said, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for introducing this debate, because it is an opportunity to put before your Lordships the marvellous work behind the things I have talked about, with the hope that they will be picked up and run with.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure—indeed, almost an honour these days—to follow my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham, who is always inspiring in what he has to say on this subject. I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, both for giving us the opportunity to discuss the Children's Plan and for her brilliant chairmanship of the All-Party Group on Children.
The report outlines a considerable number of changes, some currently subject to legislation but all of which will profoundly affect the childhood of the UK's rising generation of young children. Like many noble Lords who have spoken, I welcome the report but share their concerns about timing, resources and areas that have not been mentioned, such as the arts—my noble friend Lady Young made an important speech on that—and, perhaps most vital of all, the need to know that the voices of children themselves have been heard on all the proposals in the plan.
The Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, however, draws our particular attention to the plan's implication for our most disadvantaged young people and how the measures it contains are specifically designed to increase their equality of opportunity. In that respect the Children and Young Persons Bill, which is currently being scrutinised in another place, is particularly to be welcomed, dealing as it does with the crippling disadvantage endured for so long by our so-called "looked-after children". Like other noble Lords, I shall be commenting on that remarkable Bill later in my speech, but I shall start with one or two more general comments.
The emphasis on extra help for the early years is to be welcomed as an essential foundation for the future. The extra funding entitlement to nursery care for all three and four year-olds from 12 to 15 hours is welcome. However, I hope that every effort will be made to include the voluntary and independent sectors among those who are providing the care. We should never forget the way the voluntary sector, by setting up the Pre-school Playgroups Association and other nursery facilities, provided that care over decades when Governments and local authorities did practically nothing. I also refer back to the Adventure Playground Association because that, again, was the start of things that now, thankfully, are seen as important and are being recreated. Especially welcome, though, is the plan for a free nursery place for 20,000 two year-olds from the most disadvantaged communities.
I saw a case study example on page 21, where Manchester City Council encourages parents who have attended parenting support sessions to mentor other more vulnerable parents. That reminds me of the care committee work in London that members of my generation did in the 1950s, where voluntary workers were mentoring disadvantaged families and were attached to specific schools.
The extra support for disabled children and their parents and carers, which your Lordships have already mentioned, particularly the point about respite care, which all local authorities are now to provide, is quite excellent. It was heartening earlier this week to hear the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to whom I also pay huge tribute for his deep commitment to his brief, praising my noble friend Lord Rix for his persistence in calling for action here, which has at last produced results.
I turn to the school curriculum. I welcome the decision to review the primary curriculum to find more time for teaching and embedding the basics, such as English and maths—especially reading. That is crucial, as my noble friend Lord Dearing has said, not least in today's world of ghastly form-filling. We all face that, but the most disadvantaged are at the greatest disadvantage in filling out these forms.
A second hooray for my noble friend Lord Dearing: a modern foreign language is now to be taught in all primary schools. I find it considerably surprising that it is only now that we are beginning to hear complaints from industry that it is losing contracts because our young people are not sufficiently well trained in foreign languages. Well, good; let us at last get together and get going on this subject.
There is so much I could say about what is, in many ways, an inspiring report but I want to spend the rest of my time on three specific issues: extra support and resources for young people in custody; the new diplomas and raising the school-leaving age to 18; and the role of school governors.
Starting with school governors—I declare an interest as president of the National Governors' Association—does the Minister see their responsibilities as a management role, or to ensure that there are members of the local community involved in guiding the school and its pupils' development? Governing bodies clearly already have heavy responsibilities, and with, for example, extra preference rightly being given to the choice of the most suitable schools for "looked-after" children and others with special needs, governors are likely to need extra expertise. The report says that extra training for school governors is envisaged, which is good; yet, against that background, what is the rationale—covered in the briefest of references on page 99 of the Children's Plan—for wishing to reduce the size of each governing body? Indeed, what is the Government's view of the ideal size of a governing body? I look forward very much to hearing what the Minister will say on that.
Secondly, on young people in custody, a greater emphasis on supporting disadvantaged and chaotic families at the earliest possible stage of their children's lives should, one hopes, reduce over time the number of young people ending up in prison—not least if we go for a Corston approach, so that families are not necessarily broken up when offending mothers end up in custody. We need constantly to remind ourselves that over half of all those imprisoned had been in local authority care: almost half have literacy and numeracy levels below that of an 11-year old, while 40 per cent of boys and 67 per cent of girls—a horrendous figure—have serious mental health problems.
However, once within the penal system, the first concern must surely be to concentrate on equipping the young person for a non-criminal career when they leave it. Clearly, the appalling overcrowding that currently exists in all prisons causes huge difficulties for prison officers and inmates alike. I know that a number of pilots are now testing some things that can be done, particularly with regard to restorative justice. Preferably, and crucially, those could be organised within the offender's local community.
I also hope that the Minister will be able to indicate how the Government can help to ensure that prison apprenticeships, and other basic forms of education in such schemes, can become a priority in all prison settings. Moreover, those schemes should start early; the idea of beginning your apprenticeship toward the end of your time in prison seems completely to waste that important period of being inside. Can the Government confirm that they plan a determined blitz on that age group of young offenders, so that, on leaving prison, they are equipped with a place to live, a job or training, and, above all, someone equipped to act as a friend, adviser or mentor?
Lastly, I turn to Government plans to raise the school-leaving age to 18 by 2015. As the Secretary of State, the right honourable Edward Balls has said, that is probably the biggest educational reform of the past 50 years. There will obviously be other occasions to debate more fully the advantages for our rising generation; I can see that those could be considerable. Above all, if we are to compete globally, UK citizens will need both academic and practical skills, and to have those updated regularly.
Returning to the disadvantaged young, with whom we are concerned today, is the Minister sure that they will find being required to stay an extra two years within the education system a welcome move? They will have already failed—and been failed—within that system, and many will have truancy records. Sadly, only yesterday I saw that those have risen again quite sharply, despite recent laws to penalise parents if children miss school. I have always had doubts about that government policy. What worries me is that the Government may be considering penalties rather than carrots to attract the young people who will need particularly careful handling if they are to gain from this move rather than be further alienated. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure your Lordships on that point and perhaps expand on more flexible ways of delivering education and training to those young people.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for proposing this debate and for inviting me to speak. I also congratulate the Government on the Children's Plan and the excellent initiatives that have come forward in it and in relation to children in care. Most of what I would like to say has already been said, but I will make a few points none the less.
I share the concern voiced by many noble Lords that the real issue is the implementation of the admirable suggestions of this Government. That will be a difficult issue, requiring, I suspect, considerable additional resources over and above those already committed—for which the Government ought also to be congratulated. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, about the urgency of what needs to be done in some areas, because education—which has been referred to again and again in today's debate—is clearly the key to redressing disadvantage and inequality.
I will refer to a number of groups, although I appreciate that most of them have already been referred to. First, obviously, are children in care or looked-after children. Much has already been said about that group, so I shall refer to a number of others whom the Government ought to have within their sights in dealing with what is needed to help children who may suffer from disadvantage and inequality in the future. Those children will be living at home; one group—I agree here with the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock—is that of children with learning difficulties, especially dyslexia.
I happen to have personal experience of an intelligent little girl at an excellent primary school that is inadequate for helping with her dyslexia. She has inadequate specialist care, and the educational psychologist is urging the family to remove her to another school. Yet she, being extremely happy where she is, says that she will not move from that very good primary school. I am delighted with the initiative suggested for helping children, because all too many out there are not getting that help at primary school, so that by the time they get the rather better help provided in secondary education it may well be too late to catch up effectively.
Children with mental health problems, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has pointed out, have real problems with CAMHS. I am delighted to see the initiative proposed between the government department taking part in this debate and the Department of Health, but CAMHS is not performing as well as it should for there is no uniformity across the country. It is a considerable challenge to those two government departments to get sufficient help within a sufficiently quick time. As I have said in Committee on the Children and Young Persons Bill, if you do not get help to a child within a relatively short time, it is not good enough to give it 18 months later. Therefore, I am delighted by the suggestion about working with CAMHS but I hope the Government appreciate the size of the problem that they have to meet.
There are other children with problems at home: children who suffer from abuse, who have already been referred to; children who suffer from domestic violence; children who suffer from the mental health problems of parents; children who suffer from neglect; and children whose parents are separated or where a parent has died. The loss of a parent on separation usually involves the loss of a father. It is very important that we appreciate the importance of fathers. I think that the public under-appreciate this, as indeed, many of us do. The Government under-appreciate the importance of fathers and have been a little coy—particularly as regards the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill—about recognising fathers' role in paying the money rather than recognising also the important part they play in the lives of their children. Fathers have a real contribution to make to the lives of their children and the Government should push this message through as part of the general propositions that go forward. That is not, of course, to say that one-parent families do not do extremely well, but where fathers are around, they should be made, and should want to be made, part of the family group. Their absence, and the problems of separation, are known—particularly to child psychiatrists—to be another reason for children doing badly at school. Therefore, I am very pleased to hear about the proposals for tutor groups.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, that tutor groups are extraordinarily useful. I happen to be a governor of an independent school that has a tutor group system comprising children of different ages. I asked whether it was a good idea to have children of different ages and was told that it was a really supportive way in which the older boys could help the younger boys. I think that they meet weekly, as the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, suggested.
We need to understand that there are troubled children out there who do not come from obviously disadvantaged families. However, their problems at home show themselves at school in all sorts of ways, including inattention or bad behaviour. I support the idea of a tutor being there to identify the problem and see whether anything can be done to help the family. Part of the concept behind this excellent Children's Plan is to give support to the family. This is a very practical way in which it can be given to enable the child to put the problems at home to one side and to get on with his schooling, without which that child will undoubtedly be disadvantaged.
One very obvious group of disadvantaged children are those excluded from school who need more education rather than less. As I understand it, many excluded children get one, two or three hours a week of actual teaching. How on earth will they be reintegrated into the mainstream? I have personal experience of an American boy who was excluded from school aged 14 or 15 and went to a school in Virginia that is designed to deal with excluded children. A year later he was reintegrated into his mainstream school and is now doing well. This is an extremely good idea and far preferable to individual tuition, which is inevitably inadequate for excluded children. If we do not do something about excluded children, they will be fertile breeding grounds for crime. If they cannot read, write, spell or add, what else do they do? It is obvious that they will become criminals for the rest of their working lives to the huge detriment of the public. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, pointed out, children who offend clearly need education. Indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said, if they can undertake apprenticeships, they should get them early. It is obvious that not only do the public need to be protected when children offend but that children need to be prevented from reoffending. The key to that, as to so much else, is education. To move them from place to place or to change their mentor or education means disruption, which will provide them with a limited ability to work when they are released and will almost inevitably lead to their reoffending.
The play proposals are excellent but are schools still selling playing fields? I hope not because that comprises a very small but important initiative that the Government could take to ensure that local authorities are not disposing of land that would be much better used for children.
This is a splendid plan but we face a huge task. I hope that the Government will recognise the large number of different groups of children who need help now, not by 2020.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen. When the Children's Plan was first published, David Laws MP said it was a mouse of a plan for a mountain of a problem and that it was nothing more than a hotchpotch of reviews, recycled policies and gimmicks with the unifying theme of a belief in top-down big government solutions. While I might agree with that analysis I will try to be a little more charitable. It is not unreasonable to pull a lot of existing initiatives together in one document and I never expected it all to be new. So I give a general welcome to the plan and the concentration on children's well-being. Many things have improved for children in the past 11 years but some, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, are still under-achieving and, indeed, struggling to cope with life at all.
The plan is ambitious. The first chapter alone covers parenting support, early years, play, poverty and housing—an enormous agenda. I particularly welcome the money for two parenting advisers in each local authority and to expand school-based parent support advisers. However, two is not a very large number and it seems to me that they will land up working mainly with the chaotic families. Obviously, you would expect them to prioritise the worst cases but I cannot help thinking the Government have missed a trick—they are presiding over a reduction in health visitors who comprise a very well regarded, universal service—to give all families help with parenting from a source they can trust. Many behavioural problems in childhood and right up to adulthood, including criminal behaviour, can be attributed to stress at crucial stages in infancy and lack of the right sort of parental behaviour. Mostly this is due to lack of understanding of the effects of parental behaviour rather than intentional neglect. Most of us are not child development experts so we need to be advised about the effects of what we do as parents. So why are we not insisting that all teenagers in schools learn about child development and good parenting? We insist that young people learn all sorts of other things that will be less useful to them in their future lives. There is nothing more important than learning how not to screw up the next generation. It is almost too late when existing parents consult parenting advisers about their difficult children, and it is certainly much harder to deal with at that stage.
Many children do not have a garden in which to let off steam, but we hear that there will be more investment in playgrounds, some of them supervised by trained playworkers. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, that this is a very good thing. Children need to have fun but it must be done in co-operation with local communities and the young people in them because unless they have ownership of these new facilities, they will be trashed in no time, and that would be a great pity.
The plan includes the Government's ambition to eradicate child poverty by 2020 and tackle poor housing. The Government are doing quite a lot to help poor working families now that they are committed to compensating them for the loss of the 10p tax band; however, they chickened out, when we discussed the Work and Families Bill last year, of allowing parents of children of all ages to request flexible working and have their requests seriously considered. That was a great pity. Most parents would prefer to work and be able to share looking after their children rather than pay someone else, but their jobs do not allow them to do it. We need the Government to think again on this matter.
The second chapter covers all safeguarding issues. It is all good rhetoric but there is a big black hole in it. The place where most children suffer harm is in their own homes. The Government are still refusing to address the matter of violence against children in their own homes. They have done a lot about domestic violence, which is what they call violence against an adult partner, but they seem to forget that a man who hits his wife often also hits his children. Indeed, a man who hits his dog very often hits his children too but nobody thinks to ask whether the children of a man prosecuted for cruelty to his animals are also ill treated. We ignore this issue at our peril. Not only is it a matter of equal human rights, where children have the same protection under the law as their mothers, but the WAVE foundation has reported that violence against children has long-term developmental and emotional effects which prevent them reaching their proper potential. Stress bathes the child's brain with the stress hormone cortisol, which stifles correct development. The science of infant brain development should underpin any government policy about children, but it does not. A children's plan which has the ambition for every child to fulfil his or her potential is the poorer without action on this matter. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, indicated, a programme that does not contain a massive increase in child and young person mental health services is not fit for purpose.
Chapter 3 talks about a new relationship between parents and schools. It claims that parents' councils will ensure that parents' voices are heard within the school, and yet these councils have no teeth. Without real power, parents can do nothing. Intensive coaching for those who need it, more attention to training for teachers in SEN and a new look at testing are all welcome items in this part of the plan. Sir Jim Rose is to review the primary curriculum but I hope that the Government's resulting policy will not be as prescriptive as their reaction to the last Rose review. I speak, of course, about the Whitehall edict that professional teachers are told to teach synthetic phonics, whether they consider the child has sufficiently well developed verbal skills or not. The concentration on literacy seems to have skipped a vital stage—that of oracy. The three Rs are all very well, but talking and listening must come first. Without good verbal skills, the child will not have a sound foundation for reading. I agree with all that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said about this. I also hope that the Government will pay attention to the Cambridge Primary Review which is nearing its end and which has already had a positive effect on policy through its interim reports.
On the matter of testing, I have a story to tell the Minister. I was talking last night to a completely non-political parent who told me her 14 year-old goes to the highest performing comprehensive in her county. But she said, "They do not educate the whole child. They just tick boxes and push them out like chickens on a production line". Those were her very words. Is that what we want for our children? Many schools know better in their heart of hearts. You only have to walk into a school, as I do almost every week, to see what they are proud of. This echoes what the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Hornsey and Lady Warnock, said about the arts. Displayed on their walls are not lists of their GCSE results but pictures of their school plays, concerts, sports achievements, artwork, foreign trips and environmental projects—the things that make well rounded, happy children. They know that these are the things parents really want so they show them off, and they know that happy children learn effectively.
That brings me to chapter 4 which is about raising educational standards and closing the gap in attainment for disadvantaged children. Some of the most disadvantaged children are refugee and trafficked children. It is vital that these children—the only ones for whom responsibility is placed outside the DCSF in the Home Office—are not left behind. The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, to the Children and Young Persons Bill, now gone to another place, will make a difference and I hope the Government are not planning to reverse the decision of your Lordships' House on this matter.
As part of the consultation on the safeguarding code of practice, the Government are reviewing the UK's immigration reservation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I strongly support the removal of this reservation which creates a two-tier system which can result in serious confusion about the rights of refugee children. That brings me to the absence of the convention from the Children's Plan. The Children's Society, in its briefing to us for this debate, gave one of the best descriptions I have read about what the convention is about. This is what it said:
"The UNCRC is the best and most comprehensive encapsulation of the vision we have for all children. It describes a culture in which it is unequivocally clear that each young human's unique existence is of no lesser worth than that of any fully grown human, and that they are therefore equally entitled to be treated at all times with dignity, humanity and mutual respect. It describes a society in which each child is offered support, protection and their own voice as an individual within a recognised nexus of responsibilities and close relationships with family, community and the State".
It went on to say that it believes that delivery of the Children's Plan should be overtly premised on the convention, and I heartily agree.
This Government have recognised the importance of the early years and I salute them for that. Among the measures on improving the teaching work force, I particularly welcome funding for supply cover so that early years workers can go off and do some training. I had the pleasure recently of presenting an early years professional certificate to the leader of a playgroup in the village where I used to live. Her tale of how she had to struggle to get the time to do the work was a credit to her dedication and that of the rest of her team who piled in and helped her. Funding is really needed on the ground.
The Government are again turning their attention to what happens to children who are excluded from school and are about to pilot new forms of provision. I would have preferred more attention to their special needs within their school. We all know that an inflated proportion of children with special needs are excluded. Their bad behaviour often reflects the fact that their needs are not being met.
Chapter 6 includes youth alcohol and drug action plans but there is nothing about standing up to the supermarkets about selling cheap alcohol to kids. Why not? There will be a review of best practice in sex and relationship teaching in schools. When will the Government make it compulsory? I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, about that.
Right at the end of the plan there is the plum—a commitment to a youth crime action plan. I am pleased to say it talks about restorative justice, prevention and education and offers a serious look at what happens when children leave custody. There is recognition that further action is needed to ensure the safety of children and young people in the youth justice system. However, the best way to ensure children's safety in custody is to keep them out of it. During the recent passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, much discussion took place about the introduction of a distinct children's custody threshold. Such a threshold would have to be met before any child was sentenced to custody. Will the Government seriously consider that proposal within the process of developing the youth crime action plan?
I will end this half critical analysis with a resounding hooray. My overall marks are: nine out of 10 for rhetoric, eight out of 10 for ambition but still only six out of 10 for content.
My Lords, when the Minister introduced the 10-year Children's Plan in a Statement last December, I said that many of the issues were massive subjects in their own right and impossible to cover in such a short time, but that I saw rich topics for future debates. I am not surprised that one of the great champions of children in your Lordships' House, the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, has chosen this important theme for her debate. I, too, am most grateful to her, although yet again it is possible in the time given only to scratch the surface of what is, by any standards, a big and ambitious plan. Its breadth has been demonstrated by the wealth of speeches today. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich told us of the importance of play and African drumming in Norfolk, and I could not agree more with the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, that refugee children seem to be seen as somehow not our children. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, we won an important vote in the Children and Young Persons Bill on this very issue, and I, too, hope that the Government will not seek to overturn it in the Commons.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, spoke of the importance of specialist help for dyslexic children. As someone who is dyslexic, I support her view, and I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, that you should try filling in a government form if you are dyslexic. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, that, as someone who has been going to north Wales for her holidays since childhood, I wholeheartedly agree that Wales is a great place to grow up. As always the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, spoke about children in care with great authority and compassion, as did the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, speaking on children in the youth justice system, with his important emphasis on communication. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, was once again the voice of children having a voice on these proposals. The importance of fathers in the upbringing of their children was highlighted by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and I sincerely echo her view.
"Improving children's lives is crucial, as is closing the gap between rich and poor".
Many of the things included in the plan are themes that we support and have studied in our childhood review. I hope that will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, in his call for continuity. Where we have issues with the plan is not in its ambition for our children, but in its somewhat grand and, as the right reverend Prelate said, sometimes state-ist nature; with the danger that initiative overload and a lack of focus may harm the very causes that the Government are genuinely trying to address.
This concern was echoed by the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee when it published its report on the impact of the Children's Plan. The chairman of the Committee, Barry Sheerman MP, urged the Government to be clear about what they hoped to achieve. The report also criticised the lack of a timetable and the lack of prioritisation. It stated that those are,
"weaknesses which need to be rectified, otherwise the Children's Plan runs the risk of being simply a wish list rather than the mission for the Department of which the Secretary of State spoke".
Or, as my honourable friend Michael Gove said:
"How can the Secretary of State credibly say that he is clearing away the clutter and empowering professionals when he is sticking his fingers into everything and generating gloop on an industrial scale?".
In the interests of not adding to the gloop, I intend to focus the rest of my remarks on three areas.
The right to a childhood is a fundamental right of children. To be able to play, to explore, to spend precious time with friends in a safe environment are vital ingredients in giving children back their childhoods. The £225 million to be allocated over the next three years to build or upgrade more than 3,500 playgrounds and the 30 adventure playgrounds designed for the eight to 13 age-group in deprived communities are welcome initiatives. But unless those spaces are safe and we reclaim many of our existing playgrounds from the gangs that have taken them over—the Home Office suggests that 43 per cent of gangs meet in children's playgrounds—parents will not have the confidence to let their children use and enjoy those essential spaces. The children who will suffer most are those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who will spend more time indoors watching television. Research by the National Consumer Council, entitled Watching, Wanting and Wellbeing, shows that on Sunday afternoons 32 per cent of children from the poorest families in the UK are watching television; whereas it is only 7 per cent in the more affluent families.
As we found in our childhood review, if children do not have space to play with others, their chances of social mobility may be reduced. Physical mobility affects social mobility. We need to reclaim our parks and our streets. I was delighted when my honourable friend Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London—I love saying that, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London—immediately appointed Ray Lewis, who has done such wonderful work with young people in London, to be one of his deputy mayors, to address these critical issues. Part of reclaiming the spaces that we already have and making sure that the new provisions are well utilised is an adult presence. I am sure that we all remember the park ranger, who more often than not lived on the site. It may not be possible to return to those days, but some exciting initiatives are being carried out by the voluntary sector.
In Balsall Heath in Birmingham, there has been an impressive social revival, led by Dr Dick Atkinson, where every street now has a street steward. The charity Play Rangers goes in and livens up neglected playgrounds and sets up games and activities that the kids want to take part in, because playgrounds can and should be exciting and challenging. The result of that work is that parents and children have confidence, come back to those areas and they thrive. There is of course an added bonus to all these schemes, and that is important intergenerational contact.
However, the best way to ensure that we reduce inequalities among children is to raise the standards in our schools. That is one of the aspirations of the plan; but we must not forget that this 10-year plan comes only three and a half years after the Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners. That strategy also included promises of reforms that would raise standards by 2008, including reaching and sustaining literacy and numeracy targets of 85 per cent of children reaching the expected level at age 11. The reality is that the target was missed and dropped in favour of an easier target of 78 per cent of pupils by 2011. It was also anticipated in the five-year strategy that school absence would be reduced by 8 per cent compared with 2003. A reality check shows that truancy is at its highest level for 10 years.
I fully recognise that the Minister is dedicated and works tirelessly to raise standards in our schools. Where under the academies programme a school has been allowed the freedoms to embed an ethos and culture, there have been remarkable transformations. Those are schools operating in deprived areas and taking their fair share of challenging pupils. We hope that the academy programme will be rolled out as widely as possible and that its necessary freedoms will not be further eroded.
"Although the plan has some new ideas ... it is more about trying to marry two competing policy approaches. The tension inherent in this process might make it harder to raise school standards and eliminate child poverty than ministers imagine".
It is important that we do not lose the focus on standards, which means tried and tested methods to ensure a proper grasp of the core subjects, with key stage testing and league tables as vital tools to measure those standards. It also means the teaching of phonics and setting by ability to give all children the best chance in an ordered and disciplined environment, where learning can take place uninterrupted by the disruptive minority and where, as the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, said, they can enjoy learning. It also requires the urgency that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, spoke about so passionately. Our children need to be properly equipped for the future, so that they can take their place in society as well-rounded individuals.
The most important ingredient in ensuring that our children have a brighter future is parents. We welcome the somewhat belated recognition that,
"government does not bring up children—parents do".
We really should not have to state the obvious. All that we do should be about supporting parents. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, rightly asked, how will that be achieved? As I said when we first discussed the plan, I worry that the Government have sent so many confusing messages to parents that parents are either scared of doing things in case they do the wrong thing, or they feel that they need not bother because the state is doing it all. What we should be doing is empowering parents to be the best they can be and not trying to stand in their shoes.
Closing the opportunity gap is at the heart of the task that David Cameron has set the next Conservative Government. We have already announced proposals on health visitors—which will please the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley—and childcare, which extend to the poorest the support that is currently enjoyed only by the more affluent. Speaking at the launch of our child review, my right honourable friend David Cameron said,
"we can create a strong and confident society in which children live, play and grow happily within the boundaries of the common good".
I am sure that we can all agree with that sentiment.
My Lords, the House is indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for introducing this excellent debate on the Children's Plan. Let me say at once that we have achieved an average eight out of 10 from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who is perhaps my most relentless taskmaster in this House, which demonstrates that the Children's Plan must indeed be a paragon among government publications. I take that to be high commendation indeed.
Earlier this week my noble friend Lady Massey with her customary deftness of touch chaired a large meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, were also present and spoke, as did I. The all-party meeting was focused particularly on disabled children with many organisations present representing children with disabilities and learning difficulties, as well as parents with disabled children. The cause of those children was mentioned again today by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and as Minister for Disabled Children I begin by saying a few words about this important group of children, whose interests are advanced further as a key part of the Children's Plan.
I was glad to be able to tell the all-party meeting of the radical improvements that we are making to services for disabled children and their families, particularly the new ring-fenced three-year funding of approaching £400 million to transform local short-break and respite services for them. I recently launched the first local authority pathfinders for this enhanced short-break service in the London Borough of Sutton, alongside the Liberal Democrat leader of that borough. I heard at first hand from the parents and young people the difference that this will make to their lives. The all-party meeting was also glad to hear about the amendment that we made in this House to the Children and Young Persons Bill, with all-party and Cross-Bench support, to empower the Government to set minimum standards for short-break services in all local authorities, so that the improvements we are making under the Children's Plan are sustained beyond 2011 and there is not a postcode lottery of provision for disabled children and their families, leaving some disadvantaged or unsure of their entitlements.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, raised the important issues of dyslexia and autism in respect of children with disabilities and special learning needs. As the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said, we are investing significantly in enhanced training for all teachers about special educational needs. We are looking at the case for more dedicated dyslexia specialists school by school, and are in strong support of the provision of dedicated specialist schools for children with acute needs. As the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, may be aware, a few months ago I introduced a special educational needs improvement test, which local authorities must satisfy when they engage in any reorganisation of their special educational needs so that they can demonstrate that any change, including the closure of the small special schools she mentioned, must be able to demonstrate that the alternative provision that will be made enhances the quality of provision for the children directly affected and those in a similar position. Unless that test is met, a local authority should not engage in the reorganisation of provision.
At the all-party group earlier this week the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, raised the issue of looked-after children, of which he is a tireless champion in this House. We pay tribute to his work. He raised the issue again today. As he said, looked-after children will benefit from the Children and Young Persons Bill, which we have just passed, with its radically improved legal structure to safeguard and promote their interests, particularly in respect of care placements, case reviews, social-worker support and educational attainment. He mentioned, as did a number of other noble Lords, mental health services, in respect of both looked-after children and those in the youth justice system. There have been significant improvements in mental health services in recent years, but we understand the need to improve services further, which is why the Children's Plan set out a commitment to review those services. The review was launched in December last year. Its main aim was to investigate progress made since the launch of standard 9 of the children's national service framework and the publication of Every Child Matters in 2004 in delivering services to meet the educational, health and social-care needs of children and young people at risk of experiencing mental health problems, and to see what further improvements we should carry forward in due course.
The speech and language therapy review conducted by John Bercow and mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is also reaching a conclusion. We confidently expect that we will be in a position to lay before the House before long specific improvements that we will make in respect of speech and language services, which, as the noble Lord so rightly said, can make a transformational difference to the experience of vulnerable young children who have not had the opportunity to develop speech and language skills in the way that they should have done earlier in life.
Our approach to disabled children, looked-after children and children with SEN whom I have just identified—identifying key priorities for reform to improve life chances significantly, setting medium-term objectives and directing investment accordingly—represents the philosophy of the Children's Plan at large. The Children's Plan builds on improvements that have taken place in recent years. Over the past decade, Sure Start children's centres have enabled us to create what is now in effect a national under-five service where none existed before, with nursery places for virtually all three and four year-olds and enhanced provision in deprived communities. I know that it is because provision for under-fives is so dear to the heart of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that we scored particularly highly in her assessments of the Children's Plan.
In schools, pupils and teachers are achieving the best exam results ever. Last year, 61 per cent of secondary school pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs, up from 45 per cent in 1997. There has been a particularly welcome improvement in results in many of our ethnic-minority communities, where the targeting of additional support and the increased recruitment of teachers from those communities themselves has helped us to achieve significant year-on-year improvements in results, to meet the needs identified by my noble friend Lady Howells.
The number of teachers and teaching assistants is sharply up, as is their pay, and Ofsted reports that we have the best trained generation of teachers ever. Capital investment in school buildings has increased tenfold over the past decade, and all that has been made possible by significant increased levels of education spending at large. As my noble friend Lady Massey noted, between 1997 and 2007, total spending on education in England rose from £29 billion to £64 billion, an increase of 68 per cent in real terms. That is the basis on which most of the changes have been possible.
Having set out some of the improvements that have taken place, as I never tire of saying, my middle names are "No Complacency" and much more needs to be done to improve education in children's services, not only in England but—as my noble friend Lady Gale rightly said—in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Children's Plan's objectives for this country being the best place in the world to bring up children referred to the United Kingdom, not just any one part of it—I should hasten to correct the first sentence of the plan. She made a particular point about the development of highly innovative models of provision in a number of areas, including areas of special educational needs. She mentioned autism in Wales in particular. Those points are well taken and I will—and indeed do—pay close attention to developments in Wales and those areas to see how we can improve our practice in England, for which I have responsibility.
The five Every Child Matters outcomes, which we set out in our 2003 Green Paper, set out our key objectives across the United Kingdom in respect of children. They are that every child should have the support they need to be healthy, to stay safe, to enjoy and achieve, to make a positive contribution and to achieve economic well-being. The best way of addressing some of the other issues raised in the debate is for me to take each of the five Every Child Matters outcomes in turn and say something about what they mean in terms of concrete forward policy and implementation in the Children's Plan.
The first Every Child Matters objective is for children to be healthy. As my noble friend Lady Howells said, all the evidence points to the fact that the better start that children make in terms of parental capacity and care, from the earliest months of their lives, the healthier and more successful they will be thereafter, including in education. Recent trends in society also highlight the importance of greater childcare support for young children's parents to enable them to work and to balance work and family life.
My noble friend asked how we would develop further our under-fives' provision, particularly for disadvantaged families and those who find it hard to cope. The Children's Plan sets out our objective that, by 2010-11, nursery or reception provision for all three and four year-olds will be increased from 12.5 hours per week to 15 hours per week. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked for an assurance that the voluntary and independent sector would be fully engaged in making that additional provision, and I can give her that assurance. We are also extending those increased hours of care to some 20,000 of the most disadvantaged two year-olds, particularly focusing on those who can be identified as less likely to take up their entitlement at the age of three. We are strengthening the outreach work of Sure Start centres, with a minimum of two outreach workers in every Sure Start centre in the most disadvantaged communities. The outreach workers will work predominantly with parents, often in their homes.
In this context, I wish to highlight the role of family-nurse partnerships, under which we are taking forward models of intensive nurse-led home visiting for vulnerable first-time young parents in 10 areas of England—not only for the first weeks after childbirth, as is traditional in the case of health visitors, but right up to when the child is two years old. Thirty million pounds has been allocated to expand the family-nurse partnership scheme in the next three years. This is targeted at the most vulnerable first-time young mothers and their first child, and I am glad to be able to tell the House that the programme is taken up by 90 per cent of the hard-to-reach families to which it is offered and has been welcomed by health visitors and midwives. This model of how we can extend the concept of the health visitor, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, referred, is one to which we should pay close attention in the coming years.
In terms of children's well-being as they grow up, child obesity and unhealthy lifestyles have been of steadily rising concern in recent years. Seeking to address this issue has guided our policy on school meals, with the establishment of the School Food Trust and the raising of nutritional standards for provision in schools. Equally important is physical activity for young people. Our school sport strategy is significantly increasing sport and physical education in schools, thanks also to improved sports facilities in schools which are being made possible by rebuilt and modernised facilities, under the multibillion-pound Building Schools for the Future programme.
Opportunities for play and recreation outside schools, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, are equally important. This is a particular priority of the Children's Plan—hence our decision to commit £125 million over the next three years to help every council nationwide improve its play facilities. This will fund 30 new adventure playgrounds and the rebuilding or renewal of up to 3,500 play areas. This is also a key role of extended schools. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich mentioned the role of extended schools. After-school clubs that include sport and recreation provision are a central part of extended school provision, and that is intended to ensure that we reduce social divisions between different parts of the community, not enhance them, as he said.
The second Every Child Matters outcome is for all children to be safe. On
However, as we know, many of the threats to child safety are not of the traditional kind, but are a function of modern society. Technological advance and more commercial activity offer children greater opportunities than ever before, but also present new risks. That is why we asked Dr Tanya Byron to examine how we can protect children and young people from the harmful effects of the internet and the video games industry. My department and the DCMS have now accepted all of Dr Byron's recommendations and we will act immediately to take forward her proposals. We will, for example, put in place a simpler and more coherent classification system for rating video games, bringing the system into line with video classification and making it easier for parents to understand.
The third Every Child Matters outcome is that children should enjoy and achieve, which brings me to the heart of my responsibilities as Minister for Schools. I share the concern of my noble friend Lady Howells and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that our schools should be engines of social mobility for all parts of the community—and I include all races in our country—over the next generation. Our mission in the Children's Plan is simple. Every parent should be able to choose a good primary and secondary school for their child. The great majority are able to do so now, but where that is not the case, it is simply unacceptable.
By a "good school", I mean, at primary level, a school that achieves good levels of literacy and numeracy—as the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, said—and starts to develop children's talents beyond that, including in languages, sports and the arts. I place great emphasis on all three of those areas, as many speakers have done. At secondary level, I mean a school that achieves a good level of attainment in English and maths and equips children with the qualifications necessary to go on to further and higher education or work with training. I mean a school whose pupils achieve social skills and an appreciation of sport, art, music and culture, and an understanding of the duties of citizenship, which will more broadly equip them for enjoyment and success in life after school.
A number of continuing reforms are necessary to achieve the objective that every parent should be able to choose a good primary school and secondary school for their child. Building on the literacy hour in all primary schools, we are taking forward the recommendations of the Rose review that tried and tested systematic phonics should be the nationwide teaching method for reading, and our Every Child a Reader scheme will provide small-group and, if necessary, one-to-one tuition for children who fall behind in literacy in the early years of primary school. Every pound that we invest in literacy in primary schools to get children up to standard will be many pounds saved thereafter as regards failure in secondary school and, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, correctly said, the small minority of children and young people who progress into the youth custody estate and to unproductive lives thereafter.
On numeracy, Sir Peter Williams is soon to report to us on best practice in teaching and staffing. We will act on his recommendations, alongside the rollout of an Every Child Counts programme, which aims to extend from literacy to numeracy a similar small-group and one-to-one approach to tuition for those who demonstrably fall behind in the early years of primary school.
My noble friends Lady Massey and Lady Howells asked about the testing and assessment regime in schools. The Government remain committed to tests as an element in our strategy to raise standards. However, we are looking at how we can improve the testing regime, hence the Making Good Progress pilot running in 10 local authority areas, which is looking at the introduction at key stages 2 and 3 of single-level "when ready" tests for children, rather than their having to undertake the existing comprehensive system of SATs at 11 and 14. We will look at the results of the pilots with care to see if a national reform on those lines would be appropriate.
At secondary school level, a concern highlighted by the Children's Plan is the future of the 638 schools that are still below our floor performance level of at least 30 per cent of pupils achieving more than five good GCSEs, including English and maths. We are focusing especially on five good GCSEs including English and maths for the reason given by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing—the importance of continuing to ensure high levels of literacy and numeracy in secondary schools, as well as in primary schools. A decade ago, 1,600 schools were below this level, so there has been a good deal of improvement. But 638 schools below this level is 638 too many and we will soon publish a detailed strategy for action to reduce this number rapidly. It will include the further deployment of academies—completely new schools under independent governance, often replacing failing schools. These—as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said—are proving successful and popular where they have been established. It will also include measures to enhance support for leadership in poorly performing schools, including the more widespread deployment of national leaders of education who are successful head teachers specifically designated by the National College for School Leadership for their capacity to assist colleagues in less successful schools. It will also include the wider use of school federations and other tried and tested improvement strategies.
Above all, underperforming schools—like all good schools—need good teachers. Continuing to raise the quality of recruitment and training in the teaching profession is a key priority of the Children's Plan, including what will be a crucial change in the profession—the introduction across the profession of masters-level qualifications in teaching and learning for all teachers coming into the profession. It is modelled on the long established practice in Finland and in other successful education systems worldwide, and enables teachers to upgrade their skills to masters level once they have entered the profession.
There is much more that I could say, but I have already overrun my time. I will deal in writing with the large number of other points that have been raised. Let me say in conclusion that, as has been recognised in the debate, the Children's Plan is massive in scope and ambition and the contributions from all parts of the House have been valuable. We will take full account of them as we implement the plan. I believe that, if we do implement it successfully, we can ensure that this country—the United Kingdom—is the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up.
My Lords, this has been a brilliant and wide-ranging debate and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I said at the beginning that there was an array of talent in your Lordships' House today, and that has been shown by the passionate and effective speeches. I also thank the Minister for his considered response. We all know that he is not complacent. We shall have to return to the issue of implementation later, because we are all concerned about that.
Noble Lords have spoken eloquently and raised a number of issues. I have a page of them here that I was going to read out; but if I did that, we would be here for another 20 minutes. I think that there has been a philosophical centre to this debate, which is about children being children in a holistic sense—from whatever background they come, and whatever their ability. Children do not come in bits. We have heard about them needing love, nurturing, attention, education—above all, parenting. We have heard about the importance of play, theatre, art, music, sport, in order that they thrive. Sometimes children need compensatory programmes to help them progress. That is partly what the Children's Plan is about, and it is admirable.
I still have concerns about implementation. I still have concerns that we must take on board the recommendations from various noble Lords and learn from good practice—we have heard quite a bit about that today. I am so concerned about those issues that I am inspired—with the approval of noble Lords—to suggest that we come back in a year's time and look at this issue again, including how we are implementing new measures. With those words, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.