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My Lords, I warmly welcome my noble friend the Minister to your Lordships’ House. He has worked tirelessly for the communities of Norfolk for many years, and I worked closely with him as a non-executive director of the Department for Education and in his capacity as chair of the academies board. He is particularly committed to improving the life chances of young people. He is someone of very sound judgment, with a very fine mind, and I am absolutely delighted that he has taken up this position. I am sure that he will be an outstanding Minister and—this is probably the only time I could ever say this without upsetting someone—far better than the previous incumbent.
I also thank my noble friend Lord Farmer for bringing forward this debate on such an important issue. As he said, so many of our children and young people suffer from unstructured home lives, poor parenting, family breakdown and absent fathers, and they are at risk from gangs. At one charity in which I am involved, we surveyed the parents and asked how many of them had any kind of structured environment at home. Nearly 90% said that they had no such structure or routine system at home, but a similar number said that they would like to hear about one if someone would describe it to them. Increasingly, we are seeing children enter primary school with inadequate toilet training and some with black teeth from too much sugar. At one school with which I am involved, one of our five year-olds had to have all his teeth removed.
As the academy movement has progressed, we have seen many academy groups which started with secondaries move into primaries and then into nurseries, as have many free school primaries. One particularly successful free school—Reach Academy Feltham—engages with parents when their children are babies, and I am delighted that it has been approved for a second free school, where it will seek to have a range of services on site for families.
Overlaid on this issue of parenting is the problem of children and young people’s overexposure and addiction to computers and smartphones. This can affect the development of a child’s brain and lead to poor ability to concentrate, scatty behaviour and severely disrupted sleep patterns. Many schools are now exhorting parents to ensure that children do not have their smartphones with them after, say, nine o’clock at night or to consider using one of the apps available to control access time and content. All this, however, requires discipline and structure from the parents. One school in California, where many parents who work for social media and other IT companies send their children, severely limits the use of computers and smartphones.
We want our children and young people to grow up and become good parents themselves. Most pupil surveys show that the majority of school pupils aspire to finish up in a permanent, long-term relationship. Sadly, so many of them have no experience of having seen what that looks like at close range. This is why relationship education, which is now compulsory in all schools under the recent Children and Social Work Act, is so important.
I strongly support any initiative that can help deal with these issues and welcome the manifesto. I am particularly attracted to the idea of family hubs and hope that the Government will consider piloting at least some of these. I am sure that the benefits and payback, in every sense, would be substantial.