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My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for giving us this opportunity. It is almost like an end of term report. I feel that I should write a comment saying, “Satisfactory—could make progress”. I feel very conscious that I am standing behind, in my view, one of the greatest educational reformists we have had: the noble Lord, Lord Baker. As a young teacher, realising how important a national curriculum was, and how important training and training days were for teachers, I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be here.
I want to reflect on a number of issues. First, we are talking here about the English education provision. We are not talking about Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. I also want us to remind ourselves that every parent wants the best for their child—the best type of education, the best school—and presumably politicians want to reflect what parents want. We talk a lot about social mobility, yet the plain fact is that as the children who are the most disadvantaged, as perhaps measured by eligibility for free school meals, move through the school system, they achieve less and less in terms of academic performance. That is a fact. Despite all our schemes and all the policies, the most disadvantaged children, as they move to key stages 1 and 2, secondary school and GCSEs—and then even to universities—remain disadvantaged.
What do we do about that? Surely that is the hub of what we should be about. I think we had the answer in the debate we had a couple of weeks ago: it must be about the early years and early years provision. If we can get it right at a young age, if we can get those young children reading and sharing a book with their parents, if we can get them recognising letters and numbers at an early age, all the research shows that they are away.
Yes, we can be proud that this Government have brought in 15 hours of free early years provision, and extra for the 40% who are most disadvantaged. Hallelujah, there will probably be a bidding war between the political parties in their manifestoes as to who can offer the next stage of more free provision. That is great. Early years education is important, and this Government have recognised its importance—not just the provision but the quality. That is why I welcome the creation of the new leadership roles in early years and the new qualification for early years providers.
We spent a lot of time discussing the Education Act 2011. I do not think that it really moved us on. The most progressive legislation in this Parliament must have been the Children and Families Act, which was a real game-changer, particularly for children. The introduction of education, health and care plans showed a real joined-up approach. My noble friend Lord Addington has, rightly, spent most of his career talking about special educational needs, particularly dyslexia. He was very pleased that that moved us forward. That was an important piece of progressive legislation. Perhaps when my noble friend replies, she will tell us how we are going to review how the provision of those plans worked in practice.
One thing that has helped the most disadvantaged is the pupil premium, which has had a positive effect on schools identifying children from disadvantaged backgrounds and giving schools money to spend in a whole variety of ways—not straitjacketing them by saying, “You will spend it on this”, or, “It must be on that”—but allowing schools and school leaderships the freedom to say, “This is how the money will be spent in our circumstances”. It could be booster classes, mentoring, and so on and so forth.
It is encouraging that the DfE has published statistics showing that the proportion of disadvantaged pupils achieving the expected level in literacy and numeracy has risen from 61% to 67%. Perhaps the pupil premium is having a real effect. Again, I would be interested to hear from the Minister how we can continue to monitor the impact of the pupil premium. There is also an opportunity to take the good practice of the pupil premium into early years. My party believes that we should develop a pupil premium for early-years provision.
Of course, the money for the pupil premium is based on free school meals, which brings me to a particular reform by the current Government that hardly gets a mention, but which is really important. It is the provision of meals free of charge to all infants. Never mind the saving to a family with two children—about £900 a year—it is the other impacts that are hugely important. As a head teacher, I always sought to make the school an environment of peace, respect and camaraderie. Free school meals helped children to eat a healthy, hot meal while socialising with each other—an incredibly understated aspect of a child’s cognitive and behavioural development.
The third focus of free school meals is the possibility of expanding the policy to ensure that all young people throughout their years in the education system receive that support. In accordance with that, disadvantaged students at sixth-form colleges and further education colleges in England are guaranteed free school meals. Additional funding is being provided for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—but, as I said, education is a devolved issue, and it will be up to those running schools within the different nations to decide whether to spend the money on free lunches.
Nevertheless, the evidence is promising. In summer last year, an Ofsted inspection report highlighted that of 171 schools sampled, the attainment gap between free school meal children and their peers was closing in all 86 schools judged by Ofsted to be good or outstanding in overall effectiveness. In 12 of those schools, the gap had narrowed to virtually nothing. Of course, those schools where standards could be improved continue to need support. I hope that that will follow.
I mentioned the Children and Families Act. In my last couple of minutes, I do not want to talk about academisation programmes; I do not want to talk about free schools, which have mushroomed—