Moved by Baroness Morris of Yardley
That this House takes note of the case for the urgent levelling up of opportunities available to the children of the United Kingdom which have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular with regard to (1) education and skills, (2) health, (3) inequality, and (4) the elimination of child poverty.
My Lords, I am delighted to introduce this debate on a very important topic. It is a widely drawn debate, and having seen the speakers’ list, I look forward to good contributions from knowledgeable people on a whole range of issues that affect children and young people. I suppose we will disagree with each other as the debate goes on—we should do, because these are contentious issues in some cases—but I do not doubt that everybody who has chosen to speak in the debate is committed to the well-being of children and young people, wants the best for them and wants life for children in the future to be better than it is at the moment.
Children have had a rough deal in the pandemic, though I am not sure whether they have been the most affected group. It is not a competition; I am not sure what is to be gained by pitting one group of our population against the other to see who has fared worse. But as adults, we have a natural obligation to look after children—in fact, it is a legal and moral duty. It has been our inability, as adults, in whatever role we have, to do that as well as we would have liked that leads us to be more concerned and worried about the effect that the pandemic has had on children.
I do not believe that these children are a lost generation. They will grow up to be a generation of adults that does wondrous things: they will be teachers, doctors, business leaders and parents, who shape society with exactly the same opportunity we have had. Do not talk them down. There is a real worry that, in talking about the lost generation, expectations will be fulfilled; no one would want that to happen. But how easy it is for them to become a great generation depends a great deal on what we do now, as we come out of the pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, we were a country that probably had greater inequalities than any other country in the developed world. In poverty, in health and in schools, the inequalities that seem to be structural in our society have bedevilled us for decades. If you are poor, you are less likely to be healthy; and if you are poor and not healthy, you are less likely to do well in school; and if you do not do well in school, you are less likely to be able to take advantage of opportunities as you grow older. When you put that structural inequality in the United Kingdom together with the economy of austerity that we have had in the decade prior to the start of the pandemic, you realise that children went into the pandemic with an unequal chance of thriving.
It was not easy for any child: whether rich or poor, and from whatever part of the country, it was not easy. But when services closed in March, some children were hit worse because they depended more on those services and institutions than others did—children who depended on schools for space to study, books to read or food to eat; young people who felt safer, more valued and more cared for at school than at home; and children whose parents relied, week in and week out, on social services and healthcare professionals for help and support in bringing them up. Thousands of aspirational parents from low incomes and with few facilities at home found that their working partnership with their children’s teacher was disrupted. All those things happened above and beyond children not having their lessons taught.
It would have been difficult to promise, going into the pandemic, that no child would suffer; that we would, during that year, be able to make sure that no child was left behind. Anybody who said that was sowing false expectations. But these are children—these are the people for whom we have a responsibility. What we needed at that point was a Department for Education that performed better than it ever had before, and better than it ever dreamed that it could. That is the quality of the leadership we needed and the quality of the vision we wanted.
I saw that quality elsewhere in government: rough sleepers were taken off the streets and into hotels in a remarkably short period of time; the furlough system got money in people’s pockets in a few months; the help for creative and art institutions came through in a bigger amount than they might have expected; and there was the vaccination programme. People speak well of those initiatives, and our citizens are proud of what the Government were able to do. But when you look at the department that was charged with being the best it could be for our children, you do not see that story. You do not hear people say what a wonderous thing it was and what great services it delivered during the pandemic.
I would make one exception to that: the Oak academy was a real success. It will last for years and leave a legacy for teachers to use in future. But that was universal provision; every child benefited from the Oak academy. The other initiatives were targeted at the most disadvantaged children, and they were not successful, such as the laptops that should have been in children’s homes. I talked to teachers as the summer holiday started; they were still chasing worn-out laptops from local businesses because they were not getting them from the Government. Schools were made to drop the systems they were running themselves and take up the Government’s free school meal vouchers—and they did not work by summer school. On the catch-up programme, only half the number of schools anticipated were involved and fewer than half of the children were from less advantaged backgrounds. In all that time, the DfE managed, in one month from mid-March, to send 150 documents to head teachers telling them what to do.
Teachers tried to compensate for that. I heard too many stories of teachers taking school meals round to children’s doors; of teachers trying to fix worn-out IT kit; and of teachers who spent their time knocking on kids’ doors, to make sure they were safe. While they were doing that, they were not teaching children. All this meant that the children from the least advantaged backgrounds ended up having less time in the classroom. Some 80% of children from private schools got live, online lessons; almost 60% of children in state schools from more affluent backgrounds got the same; and 40% of children from less affluent backgrounds found themselves with online lessons. Of course that will lead to an achievement gap. Whether it is stated by Ofsted, the NFER or EF, it does not matter, I am not going to argue about the degree of left-behindness: no one I have heard from says that those children were not left behind.
The same is true of health. Although one of the consequences of the pandemic has meant that we cannot collect the statistics, I do not think anyone disagrees that reported mental health difficulties and the demand on services have increased. The one figure we do have shows that infant mortality in all four nations has increased as well. The figures for poverty show that one in three children in Birmingham is on free school meals, and one in five schools in our country has now opened a food bank.
However we went into the pandemic, we are emerging from it with a generation of children who have lost learning, have less confidence and feel greater insecurity. That is what the Government’s catch-up programme had to address—that was the task. Unless it can meet those needs, overcome those obstacles and see a future for those children, it is not worth its name.
They made a good start: they appointed one of the best educationalists I know, in Sir Kevan Collins. No one who has worked with Sir Kevan would not want to work with him again. He has decades of experience and has never shied away from a hard fight or a tough task. He must have, over those months, developed a programme that got the approval of both the Department for Education and the Prime Minister—without that, it would never have been presented to the Treasury. All that was wrong was that the finance was not agreed. What message does that give to our nation about how much we care about children and young people? Having a departmental leader who did not deliver during the early stages of the pandemic and a Prime Minister who would not give the money to sign off the catch-up programme hardly fills us with confidence about what the future will be for this generation.
What we are left with now is basically a meagre programme of tutoring and a very small amount of money going into teacher development for teachers and early years. We can argue about the money—whether it is more than Holland, less than America; whether it is this amount per day, or that amount per year—it is not enough. I have not met one teacher or one citizen who said, “That’ll do; that’ll give us a good start and set us on our way”. It is not enough and will not do enough things. Boris Johnson should not have said in his press release, “We will make sure no child is left behind.” Gavin Williamson should not have said in his press release that he is “incredibly proud” of this programme. It is not a programme of which our Government should be proud.
It is no good saying that the money is on its way; that will be too late. Look at the damage done in 12 months; it will just potentially cause more damage as well. That is why Labour, through our shadow spokesperson, Kate Green, has put forward a far more wide-ranging programme that brings together not just education but includes health, recreation and leisure, small-group tutoring for all children, more professional development, as promised by the Government, breakfast clubs and extending free school meals, a good education recovery premium and proper mental health support. But it is not just about the money. What really worries me in this debate is that it is about the lack of ambition and the lack of a vision for our country.
I remember when I was a Minister—anyone who has been in that position will feel the same—that it is often difficult to bring about the big changes you want, because the time is not right: the public are not ready for it; the arguments have not been made; there are too many people who oppose it; there are too many conflicts in taking those policies forward. We have all been there, but at the moment there is a public wish for change in how we provide services for children and young people. The people are inviting their Government to be bold. The argument has been made; we just need a department that will seize the opportunity.
We have changed as a nation. We are a different nation coming out of this pandemic than we were going in, and I think that all of us better understand the barriers to learning. All of us now know that children are poor and that makes a difference to what they can achieve and how they live their lives. I hope that I never again hear the idea that the problem for poor children is that they go to poor schools and have the worst teachers, because very often the reason those schools are not at the top of the list is because of the barriers they have to work with, with children, to overcome. I think that is understood in a more widespread way in our country than it used to be.
As a nation we have come to terms with the importance of digital technology and know that we have to make the leap. As a nation, we are no longer prepared to put academic excellence ahead of a child’s mental health. We have learned to value a broader range of activities—the sports, the arts and creativity for children. We have been reminded of what our values of compassion, citizenship, care, giving and receiving have been. I think we appreciate now that the best thing we can give our children is the resilience and the commitment both to themselves and to others that has been so much needed during the pandemic. People want something different. It is an invitation to the Government to be bold.
I am reminded of the last opportunity when that probably existed, which was at the end of the Second World War. People wanted change. There was an invitation to the Government to be bold. They wanted a different world, and I think back to what changes there were for children in those Acts: school nurses, dental checks, school meals, eye checks, school milk, orange juice. In education, whatever you think about it—and I did not like it—the tripartite system was a massive change, as was free secondary education for all. We had the introduction of child benefit, the development of council housing, the beginning of municipal, local authority leisure facilities. Looking round, we were the beneficiaries of that; we are the levelled-up generation. It is us, sitting here, at our age, who are the levelled-up generation, and we ought to remember what that has done for us and make sure that that is what we do now for the next generation.
It needs an umbrella such as the welfare state. Whether you call it a children’s plan or whatever you call it, it needs to be a range of activities that are brought together. I do not mind who leads it, I just want somebody competent to be in charge, to take us forward. I do not think the DfE, health or the Department for Work and Pensions can do it alone: it has to be people who work together. If we had a children’s plan now, and if the Prime Minister undertook that every policy his Government look at will be viewed for its impact on children and making this a more equal society, we might actually get somewhere. I do not claim to have all the answers to this, but I am as confident as I can be that unless we take this radical, bold route, we will not deliver for our people and we will not be able to successfully respond to the call for a different sort of society. Here are my starters for 10, and I am sure we will hear others throughout the debate.
I wonder whether the new office for health promotion could have, at its core, looking after children. I really am persuaded—as an educationalist, I must say—that if children were healthier, a lot of other things in education would be easier as well. So, can we charge the office for health promotion with putting children’s health at its centre? Can all children’s services be based on school sites, so that they are more easily delivered? Is it too difficult to have a regulation that means children should not live in flats without gardens, but should live in houses with spare space around them? Can we not provide money to local authorities so that they do not have to close swimming pools and other leisure facilities? Schools must change as well. Have we not learned that children need computers? Can we not give every child that starts school a laptop computer in the way that I was given an exercise book and a textbook to take home? It is the equivalent for this generation, under what could be a children’s plan.
To be honest, the curriculum has not changed for 30 years, and one more push for a year 1 phonics test will not get us out of this pandemic. We need a curriculum that is broader, that values creativity, values sport, and, more than that, understands how they all fit together so that children can flourish. It is not that children need to do those things; it is that children are complicated beings—they need those things to come together so that they can be at their best. I think that people have turned back or spoken aloud. I do not think anyone in this country ever lost their values or their vision of what kind of country we could be; I think, in a strange way, that the pandemic has given them permission to talk about it and say how important it is. I think that adults want a school system that works with parents and the wider community to instil citizenship and values in our schools.
The trouble is that the Minister could stand up and say that all those things are done already—and she would be right, as there is little tick box for each of them that she can tick off, but it does not deliver. It is not big enough, bold enough or delivered in a way that excites people and manages to do what it should do for children and young people. I am not confident at the moment that the Government understand the extent of the challenge or have the will and the wisdom to take us forward, but I am entirely confident that that is what is needed. I very much look forward to the contributions in the debate today, because I suspect that if we can put them all together, we will have been of great assistance to the Minister and her department in taking forward a plan for children and young people for the future.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, on securing this vitally important debate and on her excellent opening speech. She has clearly demonstrated that, from the early years through to childhood and adolescence, the pandemic has left its mark on disadvantaged young people. I want to focus briefly on three areas: early years, social care and mental health.
It is well documented that the early years are a crucial stage for social mobility. This is when the gap in outcomes between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers first takes hold. Recent polling carried out by the Sutton Trust found that over half of parents of two to four year-olds feel that their child’s physical, social and emotional development has been adversely impacted by the pandemic. To transform prospects for children in all parts of the country, we need to start young, and I believe that early years education should form a central plank of our nation’s education recovery. Above all, we need to see early years provision as an opportunity to provide a great start in life for children, and not just as a way of providing childcare.
Many disadvantaged three and four year-olds are currently locked out of additional government-funded childcare. Bizarrely, they cannot access these vital early years opportunities simply because their parents do not earn enough money. Surely such levelling down is an unintended consequence of policies just not being properly thought through. All children deserve the same opportunity to play, learn and thrive, so it is vital that eligibility be extended to those in low-income households if levelling up is to mean anything. Could the Minister explain this anomaly to me?
Child poverty destroys childhoods and causes irreparable damage to our children’s future health and productivity, but even before the pandemic we were heading in the wrong direction. There can be no progress on the Government’s plans for recovery and levelling up while child poverty continues to rise, and this has a direct impact on children’s social care. Simply put, funding for children’s social care is insufficient to support families and protect children. The independent review of children’s social care published its first report today, setting out the case for change within children’s social care. The report found that the system is weighted against early intervention and family support, that a lack of co-ordination across national government is reflected locally, and that more older children are going into care, partly due to a lack of early intervention and support for families. These things need to change, but this will happen only if local authorities receive sufficient funding from the upcoming spending review. What assurance can the Minister give that children’s social care will be given real priority in the spending review discussions, rather than languishing in its usual Cinderella status?
With councils reporting growing overspends on children’s social care and struggling to fulfil their statutory duty, many have shifted funding from early intervention to late intervention and crisis services. But if prospects are to dramatically improve for children, we need a far greater focus on family support and early intervention before things reach crisis point. After many years of advocating this, I have come to the conclusion that it will happen only if the Government introduce a legal duty on local authorities and statutory safeguarding partners to provide early help to children and families. Could the Minister say what plans the Government have to introduce such a duty?
The same argument holds true for children’s mental health. All the recent evidence suggests that the pandemic has had a serious impact on children’s mental health, including traumatic experiences such as bereavement, social isolation and a breakdown in networks. A YoungMinds survey in January found that 67% of young people with mental health problems believe that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health, with real concerns about not being able to access much-needed specialist support. But the crisis in young people’s mental health long predates the pandemic. Despite significant government investment in children’s mental health, children and young people have not felt the impact, with waiting times continuing to be long and children often not being seen until after they reach crisis point. We will not break the vicious circle of increasing need and lack of provision until we take a preventive approach. That is why I am supporting calls from charities and campaigning groups in the sector for a national rollout of early support hub models, which would ensure that young people in every area across England can access early support for their mental health on a self-referral basis.
My Lords, I start by reminding the House of my registered interests, including as a non-executive board member of Ofsted. It is a real privilege to speak at last in a debate in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. I felt I started an unfortunate tradition whereby she would call a debate, I would put my name down, my own childcare would fall through and I would have to scratch; there is an irony there. I am delighted to be here. I do not agree with her on everything—it is unlikely that I would—but I absolutely agree with her on the call for pace, urgency and leadership at the highest level.
I have “ummed and ahhed” about whether to talk briefly about my own experience of the pandemic, because I am always acutely aware of my own good fortune compared to all the families the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talked about so powerfully. But your Lordships’ House is quite often accused of being out of touch or somehow other-worldly, and I thought it worth reflecting on the fact that a few of us parents—mainly mums, but a couple of dads—in your Lordships’ House have spent the last year home schooling. In my case, I home schooled my three daughters, who are at various stages in primary school, and I offer a few observations.
We as a country owe an enormous debt of gratitude to teachers, early years workers and those who have done their very best. When you go to the school gate, you can see the tiredness etched on their faces. I think we sometimes forget that they have their own worries and families to think about. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, I do not think we should underestimate the emotional and psychological impact that this pandemic has had on children and on the adults who look after them, not least parents. I do not mind telling your Lordships that—again, while acknowledging my good fortune in the grand scheme of things—there were moments on the home-schooling journey when I was pushed to the absolute limit of what I felt I could cope with as a mother. I can safely tell the House that I will never make a maths teacher. So, we do not need a great leap of imagination to envisage how hard it was if you were in a tower block, had no outside space or were a single parent—I could go on.
At the same time, the Public Services Committee has been taking evidence as part of our inquiries into levelling up and looking at how best to support vulnerable children. At times, this challenge is daunting, but there is hope that we are moving into an economic recovery and, fingers crossed, the end of restrictions. I do not think we have any choice but to avoid catastrophising and to avoid phrases such as the “lost generation”, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, rightly said. We have to move at pace to deliver services that work.
I do think there is a wider debate to be had about where parental responsibility begins and ends—for example, for school readiness—but it is not for today. We are talking about levelling up and what the Government can and should do for those families most in need of support. I want to add my voice to the argument for greater investment in family hubs and, crucially, for more pace. Family hubs ensure that families with children from early years right up until age 19—or up to 25 for those with special educational needs or a disability—can access early help or overcome difficulties and build stronger relationships.
Many families are suffering their toughest times. During the pandemic I have spoken about mothers trying to access perinatal mental health services or parents trying to access speech and language support for children who risk falling even further behind without nurseries or play groups. Support services too often are piecemeal and impossible to navigate, but there are examples of effective family hubs that are up and running. I do not have time to do justice to them all, but I will mention Family Hubs Network sites such as Essex family hubs, where 96% of children identified at two years old as not achieving age-appropriate development catch up, when they get help, before they start school.
My worry is that the Government have often cited complexity as a barrier to scaling up but, after all, the job of government is to work through complexity and to grip an agenda. So, I am very glad that the Government have established the National Centre for Family Hubs, and I am also grateful to the Family Hubs Network for its briefing on the principles that can help to simplify guidance to providers. In her summing up, can my noble friend confirm that the Government see family hubs as essential to the levelling-up agenda? How are they planning to provide the guidance and financial and other support to local authorities to ensure they can transform their family support?
Last year, I also raised the issue of funding, and I return to that today in summing up. I am the first to acknowledge that the Chancellor will face some very tough choices at the spending review, but aside from the moral case for investment, there is clear evidence that investing early in family services eases or prevents longer-term strain on services. My noble friend the Minister has a very admirable record of advocating for children, young people and social mobility, and I hope she will use all of her powers of persuasion in discussions with the Treasury.
I may have been a pretty rubbish home schooler—my daughter tells me regularly that I was—but I want to be able to look the next generation in the eye, put my hand on my heart and say that, as a Government, when it comes to restoring their life chances, we will do whatever it takes.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, for initiating this important debate and for her powerful speech. I also wish her a happy birthday.
Although SARS-CoV-2 does not cause the same severity of illness in children as in other age groups, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on children’s education, social development and access to healthcare, leading to anxiety and mental health problems, all of which will have a long-term impact on their well-being, especially for those from vulnerable families. For today’s debate, I will speak mainly about the effect the pandemic has had on children’s education and health. In doing so, I will exclusively use evidence from various surveys and inquiries involving children.
Data obtained from 6,000 primary schools and nearly 1.5 million pupils found a steep drop in the number of pupils attaining the levels expected in maths, reading and writing, particularly in the six to seven age group. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds fared the worst. The survey also showed that the children in this group were slower to improve on returning from lockdown.
The House of Commons Education Committee has been taking evidence from young people regarding the effects of the pandemic on their education. I am able to quote only a brief account of what some of them had to say about their learning during the pandemic, particularly on more after-school learning to catch up. One of them said that
“it is … important that young people have good wellbeing and are still mentally and physically healthy before that kind of conversation begins. Young people’s mental health during lockdown has worsened.”
Their evidence to the committee makes compelling reading.
Covid-19 will continue to have a major impact on young people’s education and skills opportunities for some time to come. That is evident across the learning landscape, from the cancellation of exams to a reduction in apprenticeship opportunities, which are exacerbating existing inequalities in our education system and, in turn, impacting on career opportunities for young people.
A pulse survey conducted by EngineeringUK last summer of 1,000 11 to 19 year-olds highlighted some of the concerns young people have about their future due to the pandemic and lost learning. Some 62% felt that finding a job will be more difficult; 52% felt that going to university would be difficult; 41% did not think that they would find an apprenticeship place; 44% felt that finding a job they could keep would be a problem.
The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill focuses on skills for jobs in the future. As a health professional, I know that there are job opportunities in the health sector, but outwith that, the majority of jobs will need technical and digital skills. To equip young people to get skills in those areas we need to think about addressing the following: making diversity and inclusion a priority in the context of recovery from the pandemic; a new STEM education strategy; a new careers strategy for England; expanding the careers hub, with a dedicated STEM leader; and a fully funded digital learning strategy for schools. By the way, why do we not give free broadband to children from vulnerable homes? We give them old laptops for free. We also need to embed careers into the STEM curriculum. I hope the Minister will comment on those areas.
The pandemic has also had a negative effect on children’s health. While the pandemic has wider health effects on children, it is the mental health aspects that are of great concern. Evidence from children and young people from YoungMinds, which I already mentioned, estimates that one in eight children has a diagnosable mental health condition. A survey of 4,000 paediatricians found late presentations of health conditions, a drop-off in attendance, increased mental health problems in children and delayed presentation of childhood cancers.
The Children’s Commissioner recently conducted a children’s survey, The Big Ask, to hear from children. More than half a million children responded. I gather that the report will be published in the summer, but preliminary data suggest that mental health is one of the key concerns of the children surveyed. This will be an important report, and I hope that we will have an opportunity to debate it.
We all know that the pandemic has had a huge negative impact on children’s education and health. Any recovery plans should address not only educational aspects but well-being and, importantly, the mental health of children.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, on a speech every word of which I endorse and cannot really add to. I sympathise enormously with the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld. I did some home schooling for a 10 year- old grandson from Liverpool, who looked at the ceiling when I could not understand his maths and said, “I’ll explain it to you.” And he did. I felt what can only be called the appropriate humiliation. I want to ditch much of what I had to say and just point to a couple of things that I think are worth recording in this debate.
The Church of England, which gets knocked for all sorts of things, has been committed to what is now called levelling-up for some time. We have been investing heavily in initiatives and change programmes such as the strategic development funding, with, up to the end of 2020, 77 projects and £56 million committed to deprived areas. Of the 93 local authorities categorised by the Government as priority 1 for levelling-up, 48 contain projects receiving SDF funding, spread across 20 dioceses, focusing particularly on younger generations and deprived communities in urban and rural contexts.
I could also mention lowest income communities funding, strategic transformation funding and a plethora of social action projects rooted in local communities across the country—by one calculation, 15,100 projects run from churches. In one survey last year, 78% of churches were involved in food banks—a feature of modern Britain that must not become normalised, because the need for them is in itself shameful.
I shall make three points on education and the challenges that have been outlined by many speakers already. First, if children have had their education seriously impacted by the pandemic, then young carers continue to face enormous challenges, sometimes unknown even to their schools. There are more than 800,000 young carers in the UK between the ages of five—I repeat: five—and 18. Prior to the pandemic, 27% missed school and 39% received no extra support, so even extra tutoring will not help them. I ask the Minister whether the Government will commit to strategic funding of extra educational and pastoral support for young carers. The gap is widening between those with the resources to weather the pandemic deficits and those without. You just have to listen to the stories of poor access to IT, some of which we have heard today.
Secondly, the Child Poverty Action Group has reasonably proposed that extended schools be funded as part of a strategic educational recovery plan that holds together the disparate but connected impacts of the pandemic on mental health, welfare and so on. I again flog this horse: removal of the two-child limit in welfare provision would be enormously helpful and fruitful. No educational resource will be effective unless it enables parents to support their children in accessing it.
Finally, I declare an interest as the current chair of the Bradford Literature Festival, where we invest heavily in reaching children in tough contexts in order to promote literacy, inspire ambition and fire the imagination. The National Literacy Trust rightly recognises that literacy opens routes to health, social equality, reducing poverty and growing the economy—although, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said in a debate a couple of days ago, the arts and humanities do not need an economic justification per se. But if one is required, according to research quoted by the NLT, if every child left primary school with reading skills, the economy could expand by more than £32 billion by 2025. Furthermore, literacy failure is estimated to cost £2.5 billion annually.
Children who suffer now might—not inevitably will, but might—damage or inhibit future generations in aspiration, ambition and imagination. That is more than an economic waste; it will mean that we have failed our children and our grandchildren. That cycle needs to be broken.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Morris for creating the space for us to have this debate and for her fantastic introduction to it.
I want to take a step back and talk about child poverty. There is a wealth of evidence of the lifelong impact on an individual of living in poverty as a child. If the Government are serious about levelling up opportunities for children, it is crucial that they act to address child poverty now.
The UK went into the pandemic with unacceptably high levels of child poverty. The latest official figures show that, in 2019-20, 4.3 million children lived in families in relative poverty, which is the globally recognised measure. That is a rise of 200,000 in a year and is up 500,000 over five years—and this is before Covid struck. Do the Government have a plan to reduce child poverty?
If they are serious about levelling up, what are they doing to track and address local variations in child poverty? The official poverty statistics are national. The Government use their own dataset—Children in Low Income Families—to estimate how many children are in relative poverty in different areas, but that does not capture housing costs, which vary hugely by region.
Some interesting new research has tackled this. The End Child Poverty coalition recently released the findings of a new dataset produced for it by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University. It used the Government’s local figures but worked back in data on housing costs to look at the effect on poverty rates of higher or lower housing costs in each area.
The results were striking. In nine constituencies in London and Birmingham, the majority of children were below the poverty line last year once housing costs were taken into account. In the north-east, where I live, the child poverty rate is now 37%. In five years, it has gone up by a third, moving the north-east from just below the UK average to the second highest of any region after London. The report concluded:
“This pattern suggests that child poverty is growing at an alarming rate across the urban areas of the North East, whereas the greatest changes elsewhere are more localised.”
What is the Minister’s response to this?
Secondly, on working poverty, the Queen’s Speech briefing document said:
“This Government champions the principle of work as the best route out of poverty and towards financial independence.”
Of course, the problem with that is that poverty among working households has never been higher. In modern Britain, getting into work is no guarantee that you will get out of poverty. Sadly, declaring that you believe something does not make it so.
A recent IPPR report showed how bad things are. It says that working poverty
“has hit a record high … of 17.4 per cent … Couple households with one full-time earner now have a poverty rate of 31 per cent”.
One significant—and bad—shift is that families where one partner works full-time and the other part-time are increasingly being pulled into poverty, and even households with two full-time workers are at a growing risk of being pulled into poverty. Further, big families have really taken a hit. The report states:
“Working poverty rates among families with three or more children have reached”
42%. This will not do.
The IPPR highlights the need to deal with high housing and childcare costs, as well as to “make work pay”. Sadly, however, government action has been going in the opposite direction by slashing work allowances in universal credit, cutting the value of most working-age benefits and, frankly, making a right mess of childcare support. I passionately believe in the need to level up opportunities for all children, but that will never happen until we ensure that families have an adequate and reliable household income.
What of inequality? The Government’s own Social Mobility Commission surveyed people and found that nearly six in 10 believe that the pandemic has increased the gulf between social classes. The commission also points to the growing evidence that those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are being affected most by the pandemic. Young people from the poorest backgrounds are losing their jobs while families are trapped in cramped housing and children from disadvantaged families are failing at school. The commission stated:
“Two-thirds (64%) of the population say that those who are ‘just about managing’ are not getting enough support from the government.”
Moreover, the regional differences were marked. The survey found:
“Only 31% of people in the north-east believe opportunities to progress in their area are ‘good’, compared to 74% in London.”
I am sure that the Minister wants to level up but, really, the Government as a whole will be serious about levelling up only when they take action to tackle the scourge of child poverty in our country. I urge the Government to make it a priority, as the last Labour Government did. If you will the ends, you must will the means as well. Fine words butter no parsnips.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, both on securing this important debate and on her powerful and sincere introduction.
Like my noble friend Lady Wyld and many other noble Lords speaking in this debate, I have the great privilege of serving on the Public Services Select Committee of your Lordships’ House. Over the past year, that committee has been engaged on inquiries central to this debate. A Critical Juncture for Public Services: Lessons From COVID-19 was our first report and, more recently, we have opened inquiries on levelling up and vulnerable children.
Some overriding principles are evident from our work and should be borne in mind whenever government comes forward with proposals to help as we emerge from the shadow of the pandemic—and emerge we will. These principles include the importance of digital provision and local provision, the crucial nature of early intervention—much mentioned already—and the need to commit to mental health, which we have also touched on already. These are some of the most obvious but vital principles from our inquiries; I certainly wish to reiterate their importance.
In looking at levelling up, we as a committee concluded that the concept was not yet clearly defined. It should take note of measures promoting health, social welfare and education, as well as hard infrastructure such as roads and rail and other economic measures. Surely that is something we can agree on. It should also build in local provision—something I have touched on previously—and allow for the local shaping of measures as well.
Turning to children’s education specifically, it seems clear to me that the disruption from the pandemic has affected all children but particularly those from poorer families. It has fairly obviously worsened the position from what existed before the pandemic. Although the Government have increased funding for tutoring, catch-up and classes over the summer and introduced the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill in your Lordships’ House, which will, we hope, provide increased opportunities, it seems that more needs to be done. I trust that the Government will commit to more. For example, will my noble friend the Minister look particularly at extending the school day and the school year, as well as at the importance of vocational training, which has been overlooked?
I also want to make a particular plea for disadvantaged groups—minority ethnic communities, for example, and especially Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, who find themselves in last place when it comes to life chances—and children in terms of the provision of public services as we come out of the pandemic. We also should not lose sight of vulnerable children—the subject of the Public Services Committee’s current inquiry. This inquiry has shown us that more than 800,000 vulnerable children are, according to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, totally invisible to public services. This has not just happened—it is pre-pandemic —but, as in other areas, the position has undoubtedly worsened. This is serious. It is imperative that, through family hubs—again, already mentioned—we act to correct this worrying situation. I look forward to hearing a commitment to family hubs from my noble friend the Minister, particularly on their funding.
My Lords, kinship carers are grandparents, uncles, aunts, elder brothers and sisters and friends who choose voluntarily to raise vulnerable children who cannot stay with their parents. They save the state billions in care costs. There are more than 180,000 such children and they have long suffered from insufficient attention in public policy and from decision-makers. Kinship children have suffered tragedy and trauma. According to a 2019 survey by the Family Rights Group, the main reasons for a child being in kinship care were parents’ mental health and substance abuse, domestic abuse, parents being unable to cope and parents in prison. There are different legal arrangements under which children are in kinship care, with differing legal duties, processes and eligibility for support. Legal arrangement rather than need can irrationally determine access to support.
Many kinship children have additional needs or disabilities, but typically no clear route to greater educational support. While some legal arrangements attract priority school admissions and pupil premium plus, other kinship children with similar needs do not get that help. Research reveals that over half of kinship children have needs that are far higher than in the general population, with at least 20% having emotional and behavioural difficulties. Even when they are eligible for pupil premium plus, the Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care found tens of thousands for whom it is not being claimed.
There can be a lack of understanding in schools. Some carers praise the trauma-informed approach of individual schools or staff while others have to deal with teachers and school bureaucracy that show little understanding. The Family Rights Group survey found that 20% of kinship children of school age had been temporarily excluded, 5% permanently. By contrast, the fixed-term exclusion rate at primary and secondary state schools is around 5%. There can be a lack of therapeutic support. The adoption support fund funds therapeutic services for eligible adoptive and special guardianship order families, but excludes other kinship children with the same needs.
During the pandemic, older kinship carers, especially grandparents, were more vulnerable to coronavirus. Carers worry about their children’s well-being and are frightened of what would happen to them if they themselves become ill. Unfortunately, following the return of schools, some carers have been threatened with fines when they have kept children at home. Penalties are imposed rather than solutions found. Census data reveals that kinship households are more likely to be located in the poorest areas and experiencing deprivation. More than one in two kinship carers must give up work or reduce their hours to care for the children but receive little financial support. Kinship carers’ compassion can come at a heavy price. During the pandemic, managing remote learning was challenging, digital poverty was prevalent, kinship children with exceptional needs were often not catered for and some reported loss of support from social services, leaving families under great stress.
My noble friend Lady Morris set out powerfully the strategic challenge that the Government face—as we all do—but may I press particular policies? Educational support should be available based on need and not the legal status of the kinship care. The Government should afford all kinship children, where there is professional evidence or a court decision that they cannot live safely with their parents, the right to free childcare for two year-olds, a designated school member of staff and pupil premium plus. To support kinship children’s education and transition back to school, the Government should extend the remit of the virtual school head and ensure that the national tutoring programme includes kinship children in all placement types where there is professional evidence of additional need.
The adoption support fund should be extended so that all kinship children have the same access to therapeutic support. The holiday activities and food programme 2021 should extend free school meals to kinship children from struggling households, as recommended in the National Food Strategy and by Marcus Rashford MBE. I ask the Minister—indeed, I urge her—to take these proposals back for urgent consideration, together with the need for the interests of kinship children to be mainstreamed into government policies and measures to level up their life opportunities.
My Lords, in thanking my noble friend Lady Morris for making this debate possible, I take the opportunity to wish her a very happy birthday. I shall risk embarrassing her by saying a little more about why the House should not be surprised by how she set out with remarkable clarity both the challenges and the opportunities we face in respect of our children’s post-pandemic future.
By way of background, in 1997, I was fortunate enough to be invited to serve in your Lordships’ House and, a few months later, offered a role in the then Department for Education and Employment. My job spec, as drafted by the new Secretary of State, David Blunkett, now my noble friend Lord Blunkett, was to go around the country visiting as many schools and meeting as many school principals and teachers as possible in the hope of discovering why we had inherited such a serious recruitment and retention crisis. It was my good fortune to find myself working alongside the then relatively junior Minister in whose name today’s debate is being held. I should like to take just a few moments of my contribution to place on the record what a total joy it was over the following five years to work with, and eventually for, my noble friend Lady Morris; in many respects, they were the best of my life. I am eager not to sound like a character from “The West Wing” but, as many in this House will know from personal experience, my noble friend Lady Morris remains one of those political figures who offers a relatively apolitical person such as myself a reason to believe that politics continues to hold up the possibility of being a genuinely honourable profession and, at its best, offers the opportunity to obtain total integrity while fulfilling a desire, in that overused phrase, to make a difference.
Thanks to the support of my noble friend, I believe that I was able to engage with and come to understand and admire the teaching profession in ways that few outsiders can ever have experienced. Our comparative success was not achieved through massive wage increases; it was done by working to instil trust and professional pride back into an army of talented people, many of whom had forgotten why they had become teachers in the first place. They placed an unusual degree of trust in the Minister, who had been one of them, and that trust was repaid a hundredfold.
For many recent Members of the House, this may sound like ancient history, but as so often in history, the wheels have turned and, for a variety of reasons, much of that hard-earned trust has evaporated and morale in the teaching profession has returned to a new low ebb. Every one of us who has a child, a grandchild, a niece or a nephew at school understands the enormous debt we owe teachers in both primary and secondary settings, who have helped to navigate the nation’s children through a previously unimaginable 15 months. I should like to think that this is a country in which there would be an outpouring of gratitude for the profession, but I fear that, under cover of the pandemic and its attendant distractions, something very different is being attempted.
One characteristic of authoritarian states is to promote policies and practices in terms that are precisely the opposite of their intended effect. So it is, I believe, with the document published last week by the department entitled Delivering World-Class Teacher Development. This policy, if pursued, will have the effect only of diminishing the confidence and competence of an entire profession. I stress “profession” because many in our House have devoted a great deal of their lives to promoting and protecting it. I do not for one moment attach blame for this misadventure to the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for whom I have a great deal of respect, but the proposals in this document can be interpreted not only as an attack on academic freedom but as an ideologically driven attempt at social engineering—a form of social engineering whereby the Government can decide from whom, how and from where they wish the next generation of teachers to emerge.
This House has always defended the principle of academic freedom as being, along with the independence of the judiciary and a free and responsible press, something worth dying in a ditch for. That being the case, once they have studied them, many in this House are unlikely to approve of these proposals. I beg the Minister to use her good judgment and take this document back to the department for a wholesale rethink before the entire education world comes to understand its underlying purpose and all our children are made to suffer for a clearly clumsy and ideologically driven misjudgment.
My Lords, I also offer the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, best wishes for a very happy birthday. She is a doughty champion of education and skills, as was evidenced in her brilliant opening speech, and that is the area on which I will speak. It is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam.
We are all only too aware that the Covid pandemic has severely affected children’s education. As lessons went online, with children to be taught by parents at home, parents realised that teaching is a skilled profession and began to appreciate teachers as never before. Children whose parents did not have the time, the education or the will to become teachers suffered most, and they were often those who were most deprived in the first place. It has been reported that the social and emotional development of those in the early years has been negatively impacted. Over two-thirds felt that children had suffered through lack of play and interaction with other children. When they could no longer ignore the situation, the Government woke up to the fact that, for children to learn online, they would need a computer, laptop, iPad—some device to be able to access online lessons. The distribution of this equipment did not go altogether smoothly. Many children found themselves having to share with one or more siblings. The Government made efforts to distribute kit to the most needy, but then came the question: did they know how to use computers? The families most in need were those most baffled. These children also lost out most from the lack of social contact with their contemporaries, and they often missed the free school meals which would have helped their physical strength, even as their academic skills were withering.
I note that there is a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill in the offing which will include new duties on public bodies, government and companies to work towards the realisation of a series of national well-being goals, in addition to creating the post of a UK future generations commissioner and a Joint Committee on future generations. But how long will all that take? Children have lost months of school time. Many have lost the ability to sit still in class, concentrate and enjoy learning. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, they have lost ambition and resilience. Some, with a diet of finger meals on the sofa, have lost the ability to hold a knife and fork to eat a proper school dinner at the table. As with so many Covid outcomes, it will take money, but also dedication, time, patience and skill for teachers to recapture that lost time. The main burden will fall on teachers, many of whom burnt themselves out creating meaningful and fun lessons during lockdown, in the hope that the children had the tools to access them and the encouragement to concentrate. Will they be incentivised by increased access to bursaries and by increased pay?
The most disadvantaged children could neither access the lessons nor had the parental support to learn. What plans do the Government have to focus on these children, who lost most without the discipline and society of school? There have been suggestions of summer camps and of recruiting volunteers to help with catching up. The localities where this will work best will, of course, be those with benefits already. Those in inner cities or remote rural areas will probably have little access to these ventures. Will the pupil premium be extended to 16 to 19 year-olds? They need all the help they can get. How about an extended school programme, to include music, art, drama, sport and all the other life-enhancing activities which can do so much to help children shine when academic work is proving challenging? We also need positive recruitment of teachers for digital skills, which have been woefully underfunded but will be so critical to the next generation, as they are proving to ours. There is so very much to do; how can we trust this wavering Government to work with experts and professionals to find the best way forward to ensure that our children are equipped for adult life and employment? We cannot afford to lose a whole generation. We do not just need warm words; we need real, joined-up actions. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Morris on her wonderful, heartfelt speech. We know that she actually means it, which gives it greater power. I also wish her a happy birthday. As she knows, we never forget each other’s birthday; it is my birthday as well, so we have no excuse. I am new to this place, so I hope it is in order to say that she and I spoke before the debate. I was mesmerised by the number of reports, plans and statistics that there were on this issue, which is a crucial one to us all. I wondered if I should write all these statistics down or just try and tell a meaningful story about them. She and I thought that the Minister would have all the statistics. We can argue about this or that but, at the end of the day, everybody in this Chamber and beyond is motivated by the fact that the pandemic has shown, starkly, that the level of inequality and poverty in this country is simply unacceptable, whatever the reason for it. We have to find a way of dealing with it and doing something about it.
It was quite a number of years ago that I was teaching but I remember, unfortunately, that the poverty in some schools and families was a disgrace then. It is a failure on the part of all of us—including me—that, if I went back to some of those areas, some of those same people, families and schools would be dealing with the very same deprivation and poverty now. That just cannot be right. This is such a brilliant debate to have, because the challenge to all of us is: how is it going to be different in the future? If the pandemic is anything, is it not a wake-up call to all of us—not only in this country—that we need to do better? I am sick of it, frankly. When I go to some communities, I do not know how some of these children cope. I do not know how they deal with the level of poverty. We all know the brilliant work done by food banks, including in my former constituency, and I do not decry what they do, but the ever-increasing reliance on charity and food banks cannot be right.
We all want the recovery plan to succeed. What is in it that will make it work in a way that many policy initiatives in the past have not? Previous Governments of all colours have set out to deal with poverty, educational underachievement, recruitment of more teachers, housing, food poverty, health inequality and mental health issues. In wishing the recovery plan well, the real question that should ring out from this debate, from this Chamber and from the Minister is: why will it work this time? My own view, which not everyone will agree with, is this: there are obviously issues of funding but if the pandemic has shown one thing it is the power of the state, at both a national and a local level, harnessing the power of the community. When it is clear in what it seeks to do and is properly funded, it can make the difference that we all want.
I will put my speech down; I did not use it. I hope I have done justice to the conversation I had with my noble friend earlier. The figures mean everything, but they mean nothing. Why is this going to make a difference to the children of this country? When I speak on my birthday in 2041—I hope—I want to be able to look back and say that this was the debate that made a difference to this country, and its children, both now and in the future.
My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate—I am minded to abandon most of my speech as well—and it is a privilege to hear what both my noble friends have said. The House will be relieved to hear that it is not my birthday, but I know that my noble friends could not have spent their birthdays in a better way than taking the opportunity to say what they have said today. To pick up on the point on which my noble friend Lord Coaker finished, what do we mean by “recovery”? What is a “recovery plan”? What do we mean by “levelling up”? Do we mean restoring the status quo and simply repairing damage, or do we take up the challenge that my noble friend set out in her Motion to create a proper vision and a delivery plan for the future?
If it is just about restoring the status quo, it is about acknowledging and accepting those horrendous cast-iron structural inequalities in our system. If it about repairing the damage, it is a temporary fix. If we do not take the opportunity at this unique point, when we do have a mandate for change, to present and deliver something that is critically different, then—my word—we will have wasted an opportunity. We cannot create an economic and social recovery on the backs of children for whom a recovery plan is inadequate, partial and half-baked, as Kevan Collins said.
Over the past 18 months—I have lived with a three year-old during lockdown; I know what that is like—we have seen young babies whose parents have never met a health visitor. We have seen four year-olds who have lost the gift of being sociable, making friends and developing their language. We have seen seven year-olds for whom school was the only safe place in their lives. We have seen 15 year-olds stuck with their computers, if they were in fact so advantaged, and desperate for every other thing that made their lives a pleasure. We have seen 18 year-olds for whom university has been a series of endless Zoom seminars. And, yes, we have had the statistics already this afternoon that children of five and six—the youngest—have lost about 30% of their learning. It is the youngest who take longer to recover, and children in disadvantage have suffered 10% more again.
Returning to the status quo is not an option when it is riddled with such failure, but the pandemic has also revealed new inequalities—people who could work at home and children who could learn at home. Building in intergenerational difficulties and challenges will reproduce and make even worse all those challenges that we had. So what is needed is not a repair job based on a skeleton programme of tutoring, in effect, with a few extras offered as well. As Sir Kevan Collins said in his profoundly serious resignation statement, that is simply not a credible way to build a successful long-term recovery programme to close the gaps in achievement—and he should know. He was asked to advise the Government precisely because he did know, and what he asked for was not just extra money—it was not about double physics after school—but investment in what is needed to reopen children to long-term recovery, because when you close schools, you close children’s lives. He asked for investment in play, language and creative activities to keep children engaged in learning—the extended learning programme that we have heard about.
My noble friend and I, some decades ago, were engaged in a very innovative and imaginative programme to transform what schools could offer outside the school day and the school year. It led to the concept of the extended school day, built on the fact that everything you do outside school by way of creative activities supports, inspires and pins down the learning. It is not an extra; it is something that delivers for every child in every school and every family. I would like to the Minister to meet with me—and perhaps my noble friend, too, if she will join me—so that I can tell her about the research that came out of that, on which I believe Kevan Collins built his thesis.
That is what leads to my sense of urgency—thinking back to some of those families I worked with. In some of them, the children would never have gone to school unless the teachers had collected them from their home. My noble friend gave us some other examples from today, including the teacher whose first job was to sweep up the needles in the playground. That is what poverty looks like, and indeed what it feels like today as well.
I will very quickly ask the Minister to do three things. First, address the problem raised by the Early Years Alliance this week that early years has been willingly, knowingly underfunded in the past few years and must be put right. Secondly, yes, build the programme around literacy, letting teachers design and drive it and bringing in those brilliant agencies such as the National Literacy Trust and the Reading Agency that really know what to do. Thirdly, go back with grace and confidence to Sir Kevan Collins and say, “You were right, we cannot deliver what you want on the basis of what we said”. The Government would have the blessing and support of the country in doing so.
My Lords, I know that we are all grateful to the noble Baroness for this debate and for her outstanding speech. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of our society and of our economy will be defined by the way in which we educate, support and safeguard this generation of children. Nothing matters more, and nothing is more deserving of public investment, if we are to build back better—or indeed build back at all.
The impact of the pandemic on schooling has been huge, especially for children from poorer families. The NAO recently concluded that our response should have been more effective in addressing especially the problems faced by disadvantaged children. We all know now that the Recovery Commissioner has resigned because, in his view, the support made available fell far short of what was needed. The Early Intervention Foundation has detailed the deterioration in children’s well-being and mental health, and the former Children’s Commissioner revealed, as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said, that more than 800,000 vulnerable children are in fact invisible to public services.
By any standards, our children, and therefore we, are facing a crisis, which demands not a series of funding initiatives but a concerted national effort to put children first—not just a recovery plan but a concerted national effort. What might that involve? First, we need a strategy. I too am a member of the Lords Public Services Committee and was, frankly, shocked recently to hear a senior civil servant tell us that there is no strategy in government to address the needs of vulnerable children. That says to me that there is no way of setting priorities, co-ordinating action, allocating resources and measuring success. We need a strategy. We also need leadership. The PM’s support for this cause is welcome, but we need to go further. The call by many for a Cabinet Minister with responsibility for children should, on this occasion, be heeded. We need more than a champion, figurehead or tsar; we need someone who can authorise action and be accountable for progress.
There is no disguising the fact that we also need resources far in excess of the current allocations—and not just for education, which has been touched on today. The independent review of social care which, as we have heard, has published its first report, says something with which I agree:
“There is no situation in the current system where we will not need to spend more—the choice is whether this investment is spent on reform … or propping up an increasingly … inadequate … system.”
This is an issue for which resources are important. Although we have made resources available for business and of course for the NHS, allocations to education, social care and mental health have been, frankly, disappointing. We also need to pay more than lip service to the lived experience of parents and children when we come to design our services, so that they are more relevant and more accessible. The policy lab in the Cabinet Office has done some brilliant work around this redesign of services; why cannot we use it as we move forward on the children’s plan?
We could do more to incentivise and deliver collaboration between central government departments, and between the centre and local authorities, the health service, the police and civil society. Because it is nowhere near good enough at the moment and, too often, it leaves children receiving disjointed, fragmented services that cost much more than they should. For example, at the present moment, the directors of children’s services have a statutory responsibility to co-ordinate action, but there is no similar responsibility placed upon health or the police, except in regard to safeguarding. We also need to find ways of sharing data better, so that we can identify quickly where we need to target our support, or just understand the plight of individual children. Many schools at present are not even made aware that a pupil is receiving support from social services, and that quite simply is not good enough.
Finally, as other speakers have said, we need to invest more in early intervention and prevention, because at the moment our actions are often too reactive. Again, the report from the independent review of social care makes the same point today: it says that spending is too often skewed towards acute services and away from effective health. I would say that that is true of every service that impacts on children. For me, putting children first is, as they say in the vernacular, a no-brainer. They just deserve better than we are currently able to give them.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bichard.
I too am grateful to my noble friend Lady Morris for devoting her birthday today, like so much of her distinguished life before it, to the care, education, well-being and fulfilment of the United Kingdom’s children. As your Lordships’ House will have come to expect from her, the opening to this debate was expert, eloquent, constructive and practical but also completely devastating. I believe she is right that during the pandemic, which has been the greatest magnifier of every structural and endemic inequality in our society, our children have been let down by the Government. While no member of society should be failed by those charged with their protection, to betray the young is a particularly shameful breach of intergenerational trust in one of the wealthiest places on the planet.
My noble friend has been ably assisted by many contributors from across your Lordships’ House already. It is perhaps invidious to name favourites but I feel compelled to congratulate my noble friend Lord Coaker on combining the passion associated with the other place, in which he served for so long, with the clarity and eloquence that I associate with your Lordships’ House.
In my short time, I wish to focus on just two areas of this broad terrain of inequality: hardship and ticking generational time bombs. Children and young people’s mental health was in crisis before Covid-19, fuelled by inequality, insecurity and the pressures of new and social media. After so much time in national and international lockdowns, death tolls reminiscent of world wars and such cause for anxiety about the future, that crisis is now in danger of becoming its own pandemic, attacking the mental health of the world’s young. So I commend Labour’s commitment to a full-time counsellor in every single secondary school, and to access to such services for even younger children.
Not for the first time, so I hope noble Lords will forgive me, I urge the Government to use the opportunity in their forthcoming national food strategy to commit to a free, nutritious school breakfast and lunch for every single child in compulsory education in the UK. What a perfect pandemic promise for every child in our nations. This would be comparable and complementary to the provision of universal secondary education itself towards the end of World War Two in 1944. I can think of no better way of giving substantive content to the slogan of “levelling up”. As the state-school-educated child of migrants to this country, who never once knew hunger as a child, I simply cannot tolerate hunger among our young so many years on, nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century.
It is a challenge to warn any Administration riding high in the polls, not least when buoyed by the NHS vaccine rollout and an instinctive desire for national unity in terrible times, but our children and young people will live long lives and have long memories, continually jogged by an indelible internet. They will not forget that so many of them were locked down without laptops and free broadband for home learning; they will remember that their teachers were attacked and their concerns about international solidarity, racial justice and climate catastrophe were openly mocked as “woke” or “gesture politics” by senior politicians; and they may well reflect on a Government who left them hungry and looking to football players and managers instead of Ministers for moral leadership and even basic nutrition. That is a pandemic legacy that no wise Government should aspire to.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, for this opportunity to discuss the case for the urgent levelling up of opportunities available to children. She made an impassioned speech and I would argue that it resonated across the House. People want change and they are ready for it. Yes, the boxes for many component parts of children’s policies can be ticked, but the evidence that they are connected is missing. Sadly, the delivery structures are not in place to ensure successful cross-departmental connection.
Ticking boxes, as the noble Baroness stated, is not a big enough action. She invited the Government to be bold, and I share that conviction. We have indeed come to terms with the digital economy, but why should the digital economy increase the divide rather than reducing it? We work in Whitehall and Westminster where the structures are outdated; they are not fit for the challenges and, more importantly, the priorities of today, which is why the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, brought to our attention the work of the office for health promotion, which comes into operation this September, bringing together all the strands of government policy that are essential for a cross-departmental children’s policy. It can, it should, it must.
At the moment we pursue a silo approach to many opportunities for children in education, health and welfare, not least in the world of sport and physical activity, which is still embedded in 20th-century structures. This silo mentality depends on whether your responsibility is elite sport, community sport or school sport, with all too little emphasis on health and well-being. That magnifies connectivity problems and demonstrates the vital need for cross-departmental and cross-activity engagements for children, and we need to level up.
The Health Foundation has indicated that young people are experiencing ongoing economic and social impacts that present a risk to their long-term health and well-being. The pandemic, as we all know, has caused huge disruption to young people’s education. During the first lockdown, secondary school pupils had four and a half hours a day of learning compared with six and a half hours before the pandemic. Gaps in education have not been experienced equally: there has been much more lost learning in schools with higher levels of deprivation than in private schools.
For all schoolchildren, the road to normality has been characterised by squeezing out recreation and a healthy active lifestyle, both physical and mental, at the expense of the understandable pressures today on academic studies. I ask the Minister whether in the levelling-up White Paper there is a focus on a strategy to improve sport, health and physical activity. Do the Government recognise the importance of the office for health promotion in the context of this debate?
We face an obesity crisis greater than ever witnessed before in the United Kingdom. We face children with mental health challenges on an unprecedented scale. We need to address this crisis of inactivity and poor well-being in our young people with a national well-being strategy, backed by a national well-being budget. We need to transform physical literacy and the well-being outcomes of the PE curriculum, and we need a comprehensive review and modernisation of teacher training in this context. Here I strongly support those who are calling for a physical activity guarantee, for a weekly after-school active lifestyle guarantee for every child, and for a guaranteed million hours of sport volunteering. As Professor Doherty, who leads a team of researchers at the University of Oxford studying physical activity and well-being, said:
“We support a national plan that would encourage people of all ages to become more active, less sedentary and improve their cardiovascular fitness to benefit their physical and brain health.”
We missed the first chance of a legacy for children from London 2012. We now have a second chance. Much has been made of the lack of effective co-ordination across all government departments involved in the need to address levelling-up opportunities for children. Often the problem is not policy effectiveness but a failure to deliver policies efficiently across government. For children, that requires a deep dive into the existing structures, divisional, cross-departmental and in terms of political accountability.
The fundamental problem is that the overlap between departmental responsibilities reflects far-reaching changes in expectation in society, which the structure of departmental responsibilities fails to reflect. Local authorities and partnerships, leisure trusts, local sports clubs, health and care providers, and charities should and must work together. We have never had a unified voice for children and we have never needed it more, so the need for a Secretary of State with explicit responsibility for children is urgent now, to provide essential leadership with the duty to ensure that every policy is assessed through the prism of its impact on children.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on her brilliant introduction. It was devastatingly analytical and, at the same time, incredibly positive.
All was not well before Covid-19. Since 2010, the Tory Government have been systematically attacking the poor and disadvantaged of all ages. The single fact that, since 2010, life expectancy has stalled for the first time in over 100 years tells it all. Among other issues, this means that the grandparents of today’s children are not living as long as they would have done before 2010.
The brief from the National Literacy Trust makes the telling point that, before the second and third lockdowns, all year groups had experienced around a two-month reading loss, leading to poor language skills, which impacts on achievements and employment prospects. At five, poor language skills are linked to behavioural and mental health problems in later life. The trust also concludes that
“the link between poverty, educational attainment and basic skills is stronger in England than in any other developed country.”
I ask the Minister why this is.
We have not all been in this together during Covid-19—here I am using Build Back Fairer: The Covid-19 Marmot Review. Has the Minister actually read this? If not, has anyone in government read it? It is full of questions and answers at the same time. I can touch on only a part of what it points up in early years and education:
“Many early years settings in more deprived areas are at risk of closure and of having to make staff redundant as a result of containment measures”.
Compared to children from wealthier backgrounds,
“More disadvantaged children were disproportionately harmed by closures in the following ways … Greater loss of learning time … Less access to online learning and educational resources … Less access to private tutoring and additional educational materials … Inequalities in the exam grading systems … Children with special educational needs and their families were particularly disadvantaged through school closures … School funding continues to benefit schools in least disadvantaged areas the most—widening educational outcomes”.
There has also been unequal access to laptops and technology, leaving schools in deprived areas less able to provide online learning, with the more deprived students having less space to study at home. These are all specific to Covid-19.
The Tory attack started in 2010. The Marmot Review 10 Years On report makes points about cuts in Sure Start and children’s centres, the
“low rates of pay and … low level of qualification required in the childcare workforce”, big increases in exclusions from both primary and secondary schools, and that school student numbers have risen but funding per student has decreased by 8% per student. At the same time, there is evidence that it is quite possible to break the link between deprivation and poor early years development.
The severe cuts to school funding in England meant that this did not provide a sound footing to support early years development and educational attainment through Covid-19 lockdowns in an equitable way. That is clear for all to see and has been a theme of all the speeches today. The base was very low before the pandemic.
I was astonished to find out that the UK ranks only 27th out of 38 countries in child well-being on UNICEF report card 16, which ranks OECD countries using just three measures: mental well-being, physical health, and academic and social skills. So the UK was doing badly before Covid-19. It is not an excuse for the post-2010 Tory attack on the poor and least advantaged, but it has made matters worse.
So what should we do? In Build Back Fairer—and we should be concentrating on building back fairer—Marmot lists some recommendations. I conclude with these long-term, medium-term and short-term actions to give every child the best start in life, such as: prioritising reducing inequalities in early years; increasing spending on early years to the OECD average; increasing the pay and qualification requirements for the childcare workforce; additional government support for early years settings; and better access to parenting support programmes.
It was George Osborne who set the style of 2010 cuts on their way, with his slogan not to build social housing because
“it just creates Labour voters”.
I am still looking for the one-nation Tory Government we can work. I cannot see it yet.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow that powerful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I absolutely endorse what he said about Professor Marmot’s review, in particular. It is vital that we pay attention to his analysis and recommendations in this critical debate. I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, in particular my work to support and help promote the levelling-up goals that were founded by the former Education Secretary and International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, with whom I served on different Benches in the House of Commons over the last decade.
I add my admiration for the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. Many of my colleagues in the Labour student movement and I admired her greatly when she was Education Minister, during her time serving in the new Labour Government. It is an unexpected privilege to share a debate with her in this House today.
The noble Baroness talked powerfully about the power and central importance of the state, and cast the need for education change and reform in terms of the great changes to the welfare state over the years. That puts in mind exactly how damaging what has happened during the pandemic has been over this last year. Levelling up is a relatively new way of trying to encapsulate what governments, businesses and wider society mean in bringing about these kinds of changes, but the business of state-funded and state-directed universal education has been crucial to a welfare-minded society for 150 years. That has been taken away over much of the last 12 months. Therefore, it is no surprise that this has greatly exacerbated what were already great inequalities in the education system and beyond.
I absolutely endorse the many powerful speeches that have already been made on the need for a greater focus on this challenge than has so far been put forward by the Government. It is not simply in the huge but relatively narrow field of education attainment where we risk falling behind; this has consequences for every field of society and, ultimately, for our ability to defend ourselves, and to create the medical and scientific progress that will be needed in future health crises. It is vital that we raise our game beyond where we are at the moment.
I add one final observation to the speeches already made. As part of the great increase in state activity and focus that has been called for in myriad ways in this debate already, I hope we can also see and be part of encouraging a change in the way that a wider community and wider society, including local and national businesses, view the power of education.
During my time as the MP for Barrow and Furness between 2010 and 2019, I was part of a push for change, with businesses taking greater responsibility for the area’s education outcomes, which in Barrow and many provincial parts of England were lower than the national average. We formed the Future Leaders’ Academy, the summer school funding for which was overwhelmingly provided by local businesses that understood the need to invest in their future workforce from the very earliest ages. So, this is possible.
I challenge what the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said. In deprived areas it is absolutely possible for an increased contribution from the state to work hand in hand with an increased contribution from businesses to make the changes we need.
My Lords, I have never forgotten the words of my first education lecturer, a Mr Hinchliffe, who told a room full of eager trainee teachers that we could not walk into a classroom and expect the children’s instant respect but would have to earn it by our words and deeds. It is incumbent on us all now, particularly the Government in the delivery of their policies, to earn the respect of young people and support their health, well-being and education as a major priority as we move out of the pandemic.
This difficult time has emphasised just how important our schools, colleges and universities are for young people. The education workforce has risen to the challenges, demonstrating clearly that teaching is not and never was just another job. It is an honourable profession that I was proud to be dedicated to for over three decades of my working life. I was delighted to experience a sea change in recognition and respect for teachers during the period 1997 to 2010—replacing the leaking roofs of hall buildings, and tackling the one set of textbooks between four classes and the low expectations for our children that were the norm in the 1980s and 1990s.
Then, we had an innovative education policy from a Labour Government under the departmental leadership of my noble friends Lady Morris and Lord Blunkett, among others. I implemented those exciting changes in my classroom and was rewarded with excellent outcomes for our young people, significant pay rises and opportunities for professional development. I never dreamt then that one day, I would be working alongside them in your Lordships’ House. As we have heard already today in my noble friend Lady Morris’s inspirational speech and those of so many of my noble friends, we have magnificent dedication and experience on this side of the House. It could be so invaluable when developing strategy and policy.
Let us thank the teachers and students of today for their dedication, innovation and ability to move to online and blended learning and all the other things they have had to put up with during the pandemic. We must match the ambition that children have for their own futures. We must provide investment and opportunity to back that up. Labour has a Children’s Recovery Plan that would ensure that no child is held back by the Government’s failures to protect learning and well-being. Labour is promising to match children and young people’s ambition for their own futures and to put them at the heart of our national recovery. This goes to the centre of our leader’s vision for the UK to be the best place in which to grow up.
Sadly, this Government have already fallen at the first hurdle and revealed their lack of commitment when their own education recovery tsar resigned. The pandemic exposed deep inequalities in our society—many noble Lords have talked today about poverty—but it did not create them. Poverty, particularly child poverty, has been growing for years on this Government’s watch, and its impacts are shattering. My noble friend Lord Coaker referred to revisiting a place many years later. He is absolutely right: so little has changed in the last 11 years. In fact, we have gone backwards.
Our plan for the future of young people would deliver breakfast clubs, new activities, quality mental health support and small-group tutoring for those who need it by reforming the Government’s failing tutoring programme. We would introduce an education recovery premium, investing in children to provide support to every child in order to reach their potential. We would double the pupil premium for children in key transition years. Further, we would ensure that no child goes hungry by extending free school meals over the holidays, including the summer holidays. It should not need the campaigning of a remarkable young sportsman to shame the Government into taking such actions.
It is particularly welcome that only yesterday the Welsh Labour Government published their plan for education recovery in Wales, putting learners at the centre of it. It is called Renew and Reform: Supporting Learners’ Wellbeing and Progression, and I recommend it to the Government as essential reading. The Welsh Government are also clear on the types of activity that are important. They will prioritise learner well-being, motivation and confidence as the basis for the development of skills, as well as teacher well-being. Their funding aligns with the allocation of nearly £100 million in support for free school meals over every school holiday, in direct contrast to the lack of funding for English children. The Welsh Labour Government’s pathway will ensure that education builds back better towards reform, as well as developing resilience to future Covid-19 challenges.
I respectfully advise the Secretary of State, as I did in my speech on Tuesday, to call Jeremy Miles MS as soon as possible to discuss and learn how a devolved Labour Government are so much more ambitious for our young people and their education and well-being recovery from the most tumultuous year of their young lives. I have the Minister’s number if Mr Williamson needs to get in touch today.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, for the opportunity to have this debate today and for her very persuasive explanation of the issues in her introduction.
I am genuinely puzzled by Treasury attitudes towards catch-up funding. I do not understand why the Treasury opposed the £15 billion levelling-up money recommended for the next three years, instead agreeing to only £1.4 billion for the first year, with the vague suggestion that the forthcoming spending review might allocate more. Why did the Treasury decide not to address the immediate and serious learning loss for so many disadvantaged school pupils? I wonder whether the Minister is in a position to tell us.
The National Audit Office has reported that £372 billion was spent by the Treasury on measures announced between February 2020 and March 2021 to counter the pandemic. That puts into context the comparatively small sum for educational catch-up funding refused by the Treasury. A difficulty with its decision is that it is not clear what expertise the Treasury has in matters of detailed educational policy. Perhaps it should consult the Education Policy Institute, which has published a fully costed recovery plan for schools amounting to £13.5 billion over three years, based on learning loss.
As it is, there will be extra spending of only £50 a pupil in England, so this summer 90,000 children transferring to secondary school will be significantly behind in basic literacy skills. Perhaps the Minister might be able to explain why catch-up funding seems so much higher in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales than in England. The Education Policy Institute reports that spending is around £200 per pupil in Northern Ireland and Scotland and around £300 per pupil in Wales, compared with only £50 in England.
There is a broader issue. The Government’s understanding of levelling up seems to relate primarily to infrastructure funding and investment in places, but surely levelling up also means creating opportunities to level up individuals who suffer disadvantage, many of whom live in those left-behind areas. In the end, success in levelling up will be led by people.
For example, take digital skills. In my home region, the north-east of England, the Office for National Statistics and Ofcom estimate that there are 55,000 families without access to a laptop, tablet or desktop computer at home. We must get all pupils connected from their homes.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that there could be as much as £350 billion in lost lifetime earnings for this generation of schoolchildren, yet there would seem to be long-term benefits to the Treasury if catch-up spending was seen as capital investment because it could generate a return in future tax stream growth. As we have heard, too many children live below the poverty line, of whom half are in working households. Child poverty is rising, as we know from this morning’s announcement on increasing demand for free school meals.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned against a two-tier recovery: those who own their own homes and have a secure income should be fine, and those who rent and have insecure incomes may not be. In this context, the need for social housing is becoming increasingly acute, yet it does not seem to be a government priority. It should be.
In 2019, before the pandemic, pupils from the poorest backgrounds were more than a year behind their fellow pupils, and that gap has been widening because of the pandemic. This is worst disruption to education since the Second World War. Pupils need interventions to close that widening gap. This needs a catch-up recovery plan. For it to be achieved, a will, right across government, for it to happen is essential.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, for giving your Lordships’ House the opportunity to debate such a crucial issue. I agree with her that now is the time to optimise the life chances of children, especially disabled children, and to level up opportunity to ensure equality for their future. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds reminded us, we will all benefit if that happens, and we will all pay if it does not.
That is why it is vital that the Prime Minister’s practical commitment to his levelling-up agenda is commensurate with the scale of the challenge. I am thinking in particular of his pledge that his Government would publish
“the most ambitious and transformative disability plan in a generation.”
I chaired the CSJ Disability Commission, which published the blueprint of an oven-ready disability strategy earlier this year, and I thank Oliver Large at the CSJ for his invaluable assistance. The Prime Minister has been good enough to describe the commission’s Now is the Time report as a “tremendous contribution.” In his letter to me, he says,
“You may be reassured of my determination that the National Strategy shall be transformative.”
I regret to say that a subsequent Zoom call with the Minister for Disabled People, in which we discussed aspects of the forthcoming strategy relating to life chances and equality of opportunity in employment, was far less reassuring. Indeed, I do not recall him using the word “transformative” once. There were plenty of references to “very exciting pilot projects”, but nothing about ambitious and transformative change. On the commission’s recommendations, I heard very little to reassure me. Instead, the clear impression was of a department preoccupied with carrying on business as usual, repackaged as a strategy in name only.
I worry that the DWP either does not get it or has not bought into the PM’s vision, because what I heard from the Minister could not have been more different in tone from what the PM is saying. I believe the Prime Minister gets it but, the fact is that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, made clear, the life-chances legacy of the pandemic challenge makes his disability plan even more central to the credibility and success of his levelling-up agenda. Indeed, ComRes polling shows that the strategy is viewed by the public as a key test of whether the Prime Minister’s levelling-up agenda is more than just words.
Disabled people have watched successive Governments produce Green Papers, White Papers and consultations with little to no tangible outcomes, repeating the same work time and time again without any transformation. That is why we have got to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to get it right because getting the PM’s national strategy for disabled people wrong, as I sadly believe is in danger of happening, would hole his levelling-up agenda below the waterline. I want to reassure the Prime Minister that I will not blame him—indeed, I will thank him—if he delays the disability strategy until he can be confident of its landing well with its primary stakeholder group, disabled people and disabled children.
The Government need to understand that it is we as disabled people who will tell them when we believe we have been listened to, not the other way round. It is vital that the PM’s levelling-up agenda and his promise of equality of opportunity is regarded by disabled people in ways that they can see for themselves as truly delivering on his promise of levelling up.
My Lords, I too thank and congratulate my noble friend Lady Morris on securing the debate and on the excellence of her opening speech. I of course wish her a happy birthday, as I do my noble friend Lord Coaker. I do not share a birthday with them, but I share with them many decades of the privilege of working with children and young people in classrooms.
Coronavirus has exposed the reality of child poverty in 2021. Job losses, illness and increased economic pressure have pushed far too many families to the brink, limiting the life chances of millions of children and young people. As others have said, we know that even before the pandemic 4.3 million children and young people were growing up trapped in poverty. Most of those young people—75% of them—were growing up in households where at least one person was working, showing that that work did not provide a route out of poverty. A recent NUT member survey found that more than half the respondents had seen an increase in child poverty at their school or college since March 2020.
Poverty disproportionately impacts children and young people growing up in black or minority-ethnic families, 46% of whom are trapped in poverty, according to the statistics, and 44% of children in lone-parent households are also trapped in the grip of poverty, many with single parents working several jobs to make ends meet. Of course, gender inequality in pay compounds the challenges faced by many families. Research shows that a small but not insignificant effect of family poverty is that one in 10 girls cannot afford menstrual products, with more than 137,000 girls missing school because of period poverty pre-pandemic. Will the Minister consider following the Scottish Government’s lead in providing free period products for girls of school age?
The coronavirus pandemic has increased pressures on low-income families. Virtually all respondents in the NEU members survey reported students with limited or no access to learning resources at home during the months of the pandemic. This is not just laptops—four in five members reported families turning to schools or college for extra support during lockdown for provision of basic resources such as pens, paper and books, hence the £1 million fund set up by the NEU to help at least some children and young people to access those resources. One-fifth of schools in the UK have set up food banks since March 2020 and, of course, as was the case previously, 25% of teachers report that they personally provide food, snacks and so on to their pupils at their own expense. Poverty harms children’s physical health and mental well-being, which undermines their ability to learn, as we have heard from so many speakers.
Even before the pandemic, having poor languages skills at five years of age had an impact on a child’s academic achievement and future prospects. Children who struggle with language at the age of five are nearly six times more likely to be unable to reach the so-called expected standard in English at the age of 11. Children with poor vocabulary at the age of five are four or five times more likely to have reading difficulties in adulthood; it seems that they are also twice as likely to be unemployed by the age of 34. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, the link between poverty and educational attainment, as well as basic skills, is stronger in England than in any other developed country. The literacy skills gap at the age of five, when children start at primary school, in the most disadvantaged communities is 19 months.
What are we going to do about it? One thing that could be done is this. The Department for Education changed the census used to calculate pupil premium funding from January to October in December 2020. Ministers claim that this is insignificant, that schools are well funded and that the change will have only a temporary impact. However, this change will not just be one-off, because it will permanently remove pupils starting reception in the January intake. It will have a large impact this year because of the number of additional pupils receiving free school meals. This change to how the pupil premium is calculated means that £147 million is being taken away from children most in need. Will the Minister please reconsider that?
My Lords, may I say happy birthday to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, and thank her for her powerful and passionate account? I agree that we are a levelled-up generation and we owe a debt of responsibility to future generations. I am immensely grateful to Barnardo’s, the APPG on Homelessness, the Disabled Children’s Partnership, the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Literacy Trust. I commend their outstanding and continued leadership and advocacy on behalf of the children of our country.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, plainly stated what we know all too well and what needs to be done. Sir Kevan Collins warns us that the successful recovery of children’s education is not credible on the £50 per student extra support. Therefore, the Government will knowingly be abandoning children’s future education.
I was moved by the personal account from the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld. I too witnessed the frustration of my three children who suddenly added teaching to their skill set. I salute all parents, including her, who did everything they could under extreme circumstances.
Some 4.3 million children experienced poverty prior to the Covid pandemic, which has simply worsened it. Barnardo’s had a coalition of 80 charities to deliver “See, Hear, Respond” programmes, which reached 100,000 children who were hidden and suffered a detrimental impact in the past year during the pandemic but did not qualify for statutory support. The Government know about these gaps and shortfalls. Can the Minister say what is being done to follow up on those children and what has happened to them? Furthermore, during the first six months of the pandemic nearly 300,000 children were referred to children’s social services. If the Minister is unable to respond now, will she write to me and put a copy in the Library about the breakdown of the figures, and the types of services provided to that group of children?
I accept that there are many pressures that require immediate government attention to remedy inequality and injustice for all families, who are battling on so many fronts, with a lack of adequate finance and with poor mental well-being caused directly by poverty—and then there is the digital divide, homelessness, sexual abuse, domestic violence, drugs, racism and Islamophobia, all of which have reached an endemic level in our society and our educational institutions. We ignore them at our children’s peril.
Can the Minister say whether there are adequate independent safeguards in place in schools if and when parents muster the courage to complain about racism and Islamophobia, which have some of the most pernicious impacts on black and ethnic minority children’s well-being? Will the Minister and the rest of the Government also review urgently the divisive and dangerous Prevent and Channel policies, which lately have victimised and penalised young children for their shows of solidarity over international conflicts? It is an absolute outrage, and an act of control on our civil liberty and free speech, which we so value in our country.
Briefly, I want to acknowledge the detailed briefings circulated to us by the Disabled Children’s Partnership. The Government are fully cognisant of the devastating impact of the pandemic on people living with disabilities and autism, as well as on their carers. Pre-pandemic, we had a £434 million deficit in social care for disabled children alone, which has trebled in the past year. I hope that the Minister will heed the wise words and advice of the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin.
I urge the Minister to search her own heart and that of the Government, with deepest consciousness, to address the profound pain of families in need of the Government’s urgent attention. Levelling up is impossible without ensuring a fair, just and accountable Government. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, we can change the narrative if the Government are willing to do so. Does the Minister agree that the shortfall in funding for education is indicative of the Government being willing to fail our children’s future?
My Lords, we have seen the remarkable resilience of children through the pandemic while also seeing the negative impact on their well-being and, in too many cases, their academic progress. We owe it to this next generation to help them to rebound from this pandemic. We know that children respond well and quickly with the proper support and assistance. I have spoken before about the challenge of so many things switching to online during the Covid lockdowns. For many children, schooling was a real struggle, with families sharing one device, often a mobile phone, between them, and many not having wi-fi at home.
This leads me on to talk about the excellent work carried out by the ClementJames Centre, where one of my daughters is a trustee. The ClementJames Centre is a charity operating in North Kensington and now celebrating its 40th anniversary. It helps children and young people to learn and flourish, and achieve their potential through academic support, mentoring, literacy and numeracy support and, in normal years, a very colourful carnival programme in the summer. It works tirelessly with children to help make learning fun and has continued its work throughout lockdown, and at the centre since the return of groups of children has been permitted. The charity has been providing 10 weeks of one-to-one support for either maths or literature and found that in two and a half months, a child can catch up on a year of learning. Obviously, this varies depending on the year, group and child, but the charity has found that this support has been invaluable in making a real impact on a child’s life, and helping them grow in confidence.
With the summer holidays approaching, there is always that challenge between having a break from schoolwork and studying. Perhaps the ClementJames model is one to be adopted by other organisations this summer. ClementJames has used more volunteers to help, as one-to-one support is labour-intensive. This has the double benefit of helping the children thrive academically while the volunteers have enjoyed helping. One of the most common things, it says, is hearing how children have missed reading. It has been a struggle for the ClementJames Centre to find free access to children’s books when so many of its resources were originally out of bounds in the centre and the libraries were shut.
I have also heard from other sources of children running out of books to read and being desperate to borrow them. I urge the Minister look at whether there is some way to provide more free access to books online for the young to encourage reading at any time. Too often, libraries focus on providing adult literature or resources online, yet being able to read a book for your age group, or hearing an audiobook read by someone else, is a great way to learn without realising it.
I thank the noble Baroness for bringing this debate to the House. We have had top-quality contributions, including mention of the two birthdays today. Irrespective of which Benches we sit on, I believe we all want to help the next generation in whatever way is possible.
My Lords, when my noble friend Lady Morris sat down at the end of her speech, I really wanted to cheer. I could not, because I was on the Woolsack and it really would not have been appropriate. But I want her to know that I wanted to—and I still want to because when she speaks, it is always an inspiration.
As others have said, the Covid-19 crisis has amplified and magnified existing inequalities across and between our communities. Disparities in economic stability, in access to healthcare and in education have widened markedly. Evidence now coming in to your Lordships’ Select Committee on Youth Unemployment, of which I am a member, reveals this pretty consistently. It also reveals rising concern that our national curriculum is not equipping students effectively with the skills they will need to succeed in a fast-changing job market. As I and other noble Lords have said many times, it is too focused on testing what students know at a given moment —when they take an exam—rather than on developing their capacity to learn, which lasts a lifetime.
I wonder whether the Minister has seen the material published recently by Creativity Exchange. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, who is not in her place today, for drawing it to my attention. It looked at the national curriculum in Australia, where critical and creative thinking is one of seven general capabilities which include literacy, numeracy and ICT capability,
“each one of which can be embedded in individual subjects or learning areas”.
In the state of Victoria, we are told:
“The State is determined to highlight the important role of critical and creative thinking skills in helping students to build problem solving and evaluation capability, the confidence to question, challenge and establish deeper thinking on topics, concepts, events, beliefs, cultures and society.”
In Victoria, an assessment system has been developed to test how students progress with this creative and critical thinking. These are the skills that employers are crying out for here and do not currently find in our young people. Is it not time for a big rethink of our own narrow and restrictive national curriculum?
Finally, I want to add a bit to what has been said about teachers. The Secretary of State for Education, in a letter he wrote to Members of Parliament on
Sir Kevan Collins has been referred to many times in this debate. Speaking about school leaders in one of his last public appearances before he was so carelessly cast aside, he told the Youth Unemployment Committee:
“I think it is heroic what they have done for us in the last 18 months, and I worry about Covid fatigue and a backlog of people who might be saying that this is a time to rethink. How we present the recovery will be a big signal to that community and that sector as to whether they lean in”.
My fear is that the crisis he was anticipating is already upon us. Teachers and school leaders are at the sharp end as we try to reverse the damage inflicted by the pandemic. They need support and consistency from the Department for Education in the huge task they have before them, not criticism and disparagement, as is too often the case.
I am sure the Minister will remind us of recruitment drives, improved starting salaries and funding for continuing professional development. These are all great, but what can she say about how the Government will strengthen support for experienced school leaders, who are essential to the delivery of a recovery programme? I fear that many are losing heart, and without them we are lost.
My Lords, I give many thanks to my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley for providing the opportunity to debate this crucial issue, which is so important for the future of our society. What a fantastic speech it was: so clear, so heartfelt and so powerful. We simply have no choice but to address the closely linked issues of health, inequality and child poverty and their impact on the future of our children.
In my remarks, I want to focus specifically on children’s mental health as we emerge from the Covid pandemic. There was already cause for concern about child and adolescent mental health prior to the pandemic. A national NHS Digital study in 2017 showed that one in nine children and young people had a probable mental health problem. A follow-up study in July 2020 indicated that this figure had increased to one in six. While it is not clear whether this increase was necessarily a result of the pandemic or a continuing upward trajectory, there is evidence that the pandemic has had an overall negative effect on children and young peoples’ mental health.
It is important to note that the pandemic has not brought negative consequences for all young people. For example, 25% to 40% of the children and young people surveyed by the Oxford University OxWell study reported that the first lockdown had led them to feel happier. A second large study, by ImpactEd, found that average well-being scores reported by school-age children and adolescents were higher during the first national lockdown, when most children were not at school, than later in the year when they returned to school. But this must not make us complacent, because these results highlight the need better to understand what accounts for the variability in children’s mental health experiences during the pandemic. Why has it affected some children so much worse than others?
Some evidence on this has come from the Oxford University Co-Space study, which has been tracking children and young people’s mental health monthly since March 2020. It found that particular groups have had elevated mental health symptoms throughout the pandemic. The symptoms were worse for those who live in families with low household incomes, those with special educational needs and those whose parents reported high psychological distress, which is closely associated with poverty. Evidence from food banks shows that unexpected poverty arising from the pandemic can be particularly stressful for families.
It is of particular concern that, while the Co-Space study saw an overall improvement in mental health in March 2021 as the restrictions eased, children in special educational needs and in low-income families continued to have high levels of symptoms, suggesting that, while many children and young people will bounce back well after the pandemic, it is much less likely where families face particular challenges such as poverty. A paper published recently in the Journal of Mental Health and supported by Chris Whitty tells us that 75% of mental health problems in adulthood start in childhood or adolescence. It goes on to describe the end goals for mental health research, the first being to break this link by halving the number of children and young people experiencing persistent mental health problems. During the pandemic, these problems have clearly grown. As Professor Cathy Creswell from the University of Oxford said following the Co-Space study, if we are to prevent these problems persisting into adulthood, we need to stop them early.
Getting on top of this makes sense for the children and their families, it makes sense for the NHS by reducing later costs, and it makes sense for the economy, as sufferers could contribute more fully to society.
I declare my interests as in the register around homelessness, because I would like to bring us to an unsavoury report that I read this morning from the National Residential Landlords Association which says that about 800,000 families in tenancies are behind in their rent. This figure has increased by 82% since we entered the Covid-19 crisis.
Imagine what is going to happen to hundreds of thousands of children if we allow them to slip into homelessness. What will that do to our schools and the problems that are thrown up? These are the kind of figures that are hidden in homelessness. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. At the Big Issue, I worked with 7,000 to 9,000 people and about 12,000 children a year who had gone through homelessness. There are about 120,000 children who live in temporary accommodation and another 90,000 who are living the life of a sofa surfer. Imagine the damage that does to the lives of our children. What are we going to do about that? What are we going to do to stop something happening that has never happened before? Those children were in some ways socially prepared for the laws of unintended consequences because their parents had fallen out of being able to provide for the family. What we have now is hundreds of thousands of families who are not socially prepared. They are not the people who sell the Big Issue; they are the people who read it. We have got this coming down the line.
I am sorry: every time I stand up in this House, I nearly always return to the same problem. When will the Government produce a road map to show that they will make sure that people will not be allowed to slip into homelessness, that children will not be damaged and that the hundreds of thousands will be kept in their homes, looked after in their homes, given social security and have their rent or mortgage paid if they do the right thing? If they slip into homelessness, the costs go up by two or three times. It is much cheaper to keep somebody in their home than to push them into the social treacle of homelessness.
How do we stop hundreds of thousands of children slipping into homelessness, getting depressed, being broken for maybe two generations and taking for ever to get out of it? What we do is convince the Government and the Treasury that it is much cheaper to mend the problem and to put a fence at the top of the hill and not an ambulance at the bottom—because that is what in some ways they are preparing for. They will shift large amounts of money into local authorities so that we can have more and more temporary accommodation. What does temporary accommodation do to a child’s mind? All the questions of education will go out of the window.
I am here once again to remind the Government: please, do this for our children. Stop our children slipping into homelessness and becoming the flotsam and jetsam that whoever is running the Big Issue in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time will have to take on.
My Lords, we are indeed indebted to my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley for this timely debate and for her dedication to the well-being of children. As a former teacher, a parent and a grandparent, I am heartened by this debate and by its passion, wisdom, love and energy in respect of children’s rights and well-being. I have wanted to cheer many contributions, but, of course, I have not, because I am too well behaved.
I believe that Covid-19 is a call for urgent action on behalf of children. Many have suffered badly. If we want to address this imbalance, we must act decisively to take on board the lessons of Covid-19 and develop strategies to improve the lives of children, particularly the most vulnerable. The question I want to ask the Government is: will children be placed at the heart of recovery, and if so, how?
Children have rights as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the UK in 1991. Articles of the convention apply directly to poverty, education and children’s services. Other articles address the child’s right to be heard, which I shall refer to today. I should declare an interest in that I have recently produced a report for the Council of Europe on Covid-19 and its impact on children’s rights.
We now have a compelling opportunity to re-examine our systems that relate to children and their well-being, discussed by many noble Lords today, and to develop policy and practice. Children’s rights are not about letting children have their own way but about enabling them to develop responsibility for self and others, to engage with systems that affect them, and to be listened to and have their views respected. It is about enabling children to become positive and active members of society and to have the confidence to make a difference.
I wish that I could show a diagram with a picture of a child in the middle and the influences on that child surrounding them—influences such as education, poverty and services. The child is at the centre; we must bear that in mind and ensure that every service that we have for children links with other services and focuses on the child. Children should be consulted about what they want and need from services. They, like all of us, are a mixture of emotional, physical and intellectual capacities, yet we so often divide these capacities into siloes—we do not communicate with each other. We would gain a great deal by asking people to identify their own needs rather than making assumptions about them. We must ask questions of families, communities, professionals, the homeless and children. I remember a workshop on mental health a few years ago where one young woman said, “We are the experts by experience”. We need to ask for and unlock such expertise, and use it to influence policy.
During Covid, children have experienced increased poverty, mental health issues, educational disruption and a lack of access to learning, healthcare, sport, the arts and socialising. When interviewing children with professionals for my Council of Europe report, some said that they had actually enjoyed being locked down because they could plan their lives and their learning and have more contact with family. But these were children from more affluent and settled backgrounds; they were not suffering or observing domestic abuse, and they were not homeless, disabled, suffering from mental health problems, poor, migrants, refugees or young carers. Covid has again emphasised the disparities in our society between children who are in poverty or are otherwise vulnerable and those who are more affluent.
If the Government are serious about levelling up society, they need to urgently and purposefully look at the lives of children and how they can be made better from birth onwards. I know that many of us in this Chamber and beyond think that services for children should be synchronised to be effective. A Cabinet Minister for children is needed, as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and others have so eloquently said—someone who is dynamic and resourceful and who can pull together the strands of childhood, listen to children, be a force for action across government and develop a national strategy for children. I hope that the Minister will say more about this.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, not just for securing this debate but for introducing it so eloquently. I am sure that all of us, on all sides, were moved by her passion and evident conviction. She is of course right that we have an obligation; it is one of our deepest instincts as a species to want to do things for the young.
I cannot help feeling that these lockdowns have had a real disproportionate impact: they have been asymmetric in their effect, hitting people in the private sector harder than those in the public sector and those in cities harder than those in villages. Above all, they have hit young people harder than middle-aged and elderly people.
I have not been teaching all three of my children during the lockdown, as my noble friend Lady Wyld has. They span or bookend the system: one is in reception and one is in her first year at university. I can see that, in different ways, every one of those cohorts has been negatively impacted, if not for any other reason than the most obvious one, which we are all grimly aware of: time subjectively speeds up as we get older. The 15 months of lockdown are a very different experience when seen through the eyes of my four year-old than through those of his parents’ generation. It is almost difficult for the small children to recall a previous time.
The negative impact on older children relates to a time that cannot be given back. Leaving school is one of the closest things that we have as a society to a collective rite of passage to adulthood—it is not something that you can go back and do a second time round. For two years in a row, that has been permanently lost. Of course, the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, is absolutely right that we should keep a sense of perspective and should not catastrophise: this is not a world war. None the less, from the point of view of the young people themselves, the impact has been pretty awful. If your dream was, say, to captain the school cricket XI and you will never be able to do so, that cannot ever be given back to you.
Young people are quite solipsistic—we all were when we were young. In reading the memoirs of the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, I was struck that he talked about being at Oxford during the Second World War and being more upset by failing to be elected president of the Oxford Union than he was by news of the fall of France, which happened to be on the same day. It is a very natural thing for young people to be quite self-centred, and the impact on their lives has been frightful.
Here is the more difficult thing that needs saying. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talked about ambition, and she was absolutely right. It would be so easy, and I could secure a certain amount of plaudits from all sides, if I just said that we need to spend more money. No one ever shakes their head when you say that—or very few people in this place do. But this is not just about resources; it is about ambition too. I have been shocked by the gap in ambition between some of the schools that have treated the restrictions as a challenge to overcome and some that have treated them, frankly, as an excuse to do less.
We heard the figures quoted about online teaching. According to the Children’s Commissioner, in the summer term of last year, half of secondary school students and 60% of primary school students got no online teaching at all. This is not a question of resources—once you have installed Zoom or Teams, it is effectively free—it is simply a question of ambition. Although there were exceptions, there was, as we heard, some correlation: generally, the schools that had the least online teaching were the ones whose children could least afford that loss. Of course, there were some schools in very deprived areas that rose to the challenge, and there were some well-off schools that did not, but, as a general rule, there was a pretty unpleasant correlation.
I make that point because, if we are now going to try to make up the lost time, it is about not just budgets but ambition. That means that, if we are serious about putting children first, we have to be prepared to give them priority over some competing interests. It might mean a longer school day or shorter school holidays. I am very struck by the way in which the National Education Union, having campaigned furiously against schools coming back at all and having demanded that everything be done online, started campaigning against online tuition the moment that it was conceded, so that a lesson effectively became just a video and then a PDF worksheet. Imagine if, pre-lockdown, you had gone into a classroom and that had been the style of teaching —would any of us have regarded that as adequate?
We do indeed owe a debt to what Kipling called our “angry and defrauded young”, and we—all of us—need to start paying that debt now. That will mean not just decreeing greater resources but putting in the hours as well.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley for an outstanding speech based on great knowledge and experience; it is one we have had before, but they get better. I offer many congratulations to her on her birthday today. I normally speak on health issues and I was going to, but I decided against it. I look to the Minister to see whether she can make my noble friend Lady Morris have an even happier birthday than she was perhaps expecting.
It has been one-way traffic today, apart from perhaps the last speaker. We talk about ambition and I believe everybody who has spoken has done so with great ambition on behalf of our children. We have gone through what I would describe as the nearest thing to World War II. I was a child of World War II and I came from poverty; I was born in a council house with all the deprivations. I succeeded because I had a Government in power after the war with ambition and who learned lessons from World War II. Whatever disaster we have, within it there is always a lesson to be learned and a benefit to move us forward. That is what we learned after World War II, but I regret that, the more I look at government policy the more I feel that there is a lack of ambition, particularly in education. That is why I am going to speak on education.
The Prime Minister engaged a man to produce a report for him—a man who is respected, very knowledgeable and would be reasonable with what he produced. People of his stature do not go for the ridiculous; they know what life is like in politics and try to produce something that will solve the problem yet will endeavour, so far as it can, to be containable and acceptable to the Government in power. I regret that the Prime Minister has socially distanced himself from children in his response.
I regret too that the Treasury seems to be in a different place from where it should be, given the problems we face and the difficulties we have to try to resolve through money. It is not all money, that is true, but the Government concede already that more money is needed. The argument is now about the scale of it and, on balance, they have got it wrong. I therefore hope that the Minister will particularly address the remarks made by my noble friend: “It is not enough.” If we do not get more, our children will fall further and further behind.
I believe that when the Minister speaks to this House she generally endeavours to build on a foundation of working together. Again, that was what my noble friend called for. Let us join together, if we can, to try to find the way forward. I am not given to engaging in party politics; sometimes my noble friends tell me that I am not tough enough in my criticism. I do not engage in class conflict but I sometimes feel that a degree of class conflict arises when we look at education, and at the background of some individuals, where they have been educated and the cost of their education. Then I see others with my origins and from whence I come: those from council estates and deprived areas, the underprivileged and people with ill health, which we have to address. We need to have a different view.
I urge the Minister to try to be as constructive as she can in replying, to build on a foundation across the House and perhaps undertake not just to go back her department but to get a message to the Prime Minister that he needs to think again. There is an impression that, in certain areas, privilege counts, and those without it fall further behind. Covid has exposed that without any doubt in so many areas, but particularly in education. I hope the Minister will respond as positively as she can to make a happier birthday for my noble friend Lady Morris.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, for securing this debate and for her immensely powerful introduction to it. I particularly applaud her positivism in speaking about the young people of today as a great generation. That is what I see in many of my contacts with them, from the climate strikers of Bristol, Sheffield and beyond, to the school and college pupils I meet through “Learn with the Lords”.
I saw it this morning as I opened Broomhill Library’s restored historic rock garden. Hard work from young people, ranging from local infants classes to the students of Freeman College and the landscape design students at the University of Sheffield, has contributed to restoring a historic design by Percy Cane and creating a biodiverse, rich environment that will be a great asset to public well-being in Sheffield. It is a demonstration of the power of community, to which the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, referred.
But there is no doubt that this generation faces unique challenges pre-dating the pandemic, which has highlighted and amplified their effects but did not create them. Many young people I meet are understandably acutely anxious about the climate emergency and the nature crisis, but they also have a profound sense of the brokenness of our society and its deep inequality—which means inadequacy of income and wealth, poverty, and the inability of millions, particularly children, to access basic needs for a decent life.
There is also a deep poverty in the quality of life. Lives are not so obviously grey as they were in Victorian mill cities, but millions of our young are trapped in austerity-wracked communities of closed libraries and cancelled bus services, with their housing overcrowded and falling apart, their air filthy and parks uncared for. That is an indictment of past political decisions over decades.
I was tempted to focus my speech on that, but my visit this morning made me decide instead to focus on positive possibilities—directions we are not now taking that we should. The post Covid-19 recovery for young people has to start with an education system that prepares students for a truly healthy, fulfilling life, not just for exams, and one that is not measured by the income those students later collect, for we all know that income level bears no relationship to the value of the individual’s contribution to society. It involves an education that allows for creative possibilities. The tremendous energy and enthusiasm of even the youngest children is all too often squeezed out of them by the world of poverty and inequality, and the rigidity and mindless routine forced into their schools by government diktat.
We can draw inspiration from Broomhill. Education should involve being out in the open air as standard every day, in contact with soils, plants and wildlife, which we know is great for everyone’s health, but particularly children’s. There should be a right to nature, and green space—ideally a wild space—near every home. Education should involve contact with and being surrounded by art and history. Why is there so little public art in the UK, not just in major city squares but in every suburb, village or every telecoms box, as in parts of Sheffield? Why do this Government seem to be doing everything they can to discourage such subjects at secondary and tertiary level?
Perhaps most importantly of all, education should involve control, which the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, just referred to: knowing that you can make decisions about your own life, follow your own dreams and take your talents where you will. That is something that should start young, in school, with pupils having far more say individually and collectively over their own learning. That is what the young people involved in the Broomhill garden did; they co-produced it with the experts and their community.
I come back to the anxiety about the climate emergency, the nature crisis, and poverty and inequality. Concerned about encountering it so often, I once spoke to a psychologist about my instinctive reaction to it: that empowerment was crucial to giving people the tools to tackle it. The psychologist agreed. The reality of our society—our state of economic, social, environmental and political chaos—cannot be hidden from young people. They see it, feel it and taste it every day of their lives. They know that previous generations have failed. They have the energy, ideas and capacity to work with all of us, if we just allow them the resources and freedom to act. None of us in your Lordships’ House know what it is to be a 10 or 16 year-old today; they are the experts on their own lives. We have to give them control over their own futures.
There is said to be a Chinese proverb about the curse of living in interesting times. To adapt it, I would say that the young are cursed, by decades of disastrous decisions, to be forced to be a great generation. Radical change is a certainty; it is in all of our hands that it is in the right direction.
I thank my noble friend Lady Morris, for her debate and acknowledge the conviction and rightness of her remarks, and in the true voice of the great city of Manchester. I served in three Administrations alongside two Morris brothers in another place, a father and an uncle to the noble Baroness, and very fine advocates for the city of Manchester.
The great William Gladstone, the people’s William, on the passage of a franchise Bill was heard to say: “We must now educate our masters”, but left-behind communities remain, despite all the national treasure expended by all Governments since 1945. Unsuccessful schools, bad health, inequality, poverty, Covid—the heartfelt speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, tells us how far we still have to go. A generation ago, the late, wise, noble Lord Dahrendorf, he of the London School of Economics, used the descriptive phrase, “the underclass”. That unwoke phrase is not deployed today, but it carried a chilling truth. My noble friend Lady Morris, in more human terms, has described a large distressed segment of British society.
At the Downing Street lectern, the incoming Premier, Mrs Theresa May, made a compelling speech of sincerity. One of her phrases told of her concern for those “just getting by”, a noble sentiment, and this debate over- whelmingly concerns those young people in the homes of those just getting by. This describes many millions of our fellow citizens, but what of those who are not getting by? We know the answer. Many tens of thousands of our fellow citizens are not getting by.
RA Butler’s Education Act 1944 envisaged secondary technical schools but they did not happen. Tony Crosland, he of The Future of Socialism, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pretty well eliminated the grammar schools without improving much else. Our polytechnics, technically oriented, sought university status and arguably took their eye off the skills and apprenticeship world. Female entry into industrial apprenticeships is far from equal—an imbalance to be tackled. I think the key is the teacher and the lecturer if we want children and young adults to make their way. We underrate, underpay and misunderstand the teacher. We need more teachers.
As a class teacher, I realised that if you strain the children, you strain the teachers. The teacher who gives her all throughout lesson times is exhausted when the final bell rings. As a young Minister with an education portfolio, I noted that the LEA’s older, besuited councillor type was keenest on the fortunes of the most able. As an FE lecturer, I taught aerospace apprentices and saw their responses to practical challenges. They thrived on the vocational. The diligent, positive Select Committee chair, Robert Halfon MP, is surely right to call for more vocational curriculums. It is a very positive move for the Times newspaper to set up an education commission, and surely the respected Rachel Sylvester, as chair, will deliver a helpful, decisive compass for action. Tony Blair’s recently delivered speech referred to the many forgotten towns and communities. He made helpful suggestions concerning new universities in the north. There is a way forward.
To conclude, we live in an alarmingly unequal society —indeed, one of rapidly increasing inequality. At a time when most of us live in homes of promise and prosperity, or homes of great prosperity and much possession, it is all so unequal, so very unjust, that it is now a challenge to British statecraft.
My Lords, I declare an interest as an adviser to Norton, the internet security company, on children’s security with software during the pandemic. My wife is involved with PaJeS, the association of Jewish schools, which has a very large number of pupils, particular in Liverpool, Manchester and London. I also work on outreach with Imperial College, where I champion visits to various schools. As I tried to tell the noble Baroness during the Queen’s Speech debate—I think she was not in the Chamber at the time—I have spoken to more than 50,000 schoolchildren over the year during my visits.
Unfortunately, I felt a mixture of sadness and almost anger when I heard the noble Lord, Lord Hannan. The schools I visit, in coastal districts and parts of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, the West Country, the north-east and the north-west of England do not have a cricket pitch and they certainly do not have a captain of cricket. What they have is something very much more valuable—they still have potential. It is not a question of ambition; it is a question of aspiration. They have ambition, but they do not have aspiration, because they do not see the aspiration possible. That has been a real problem during the pandemic.
The problems we face in schools include, first, the limitation of social interaction, which has been a really important issue. The loss of learning has led to teenagers worrying that they have fallen behind. That is particularly true, of course, before the teens, with very young children who have stopped managing to see their friends, perhaps for the first time. For some children, that has made a very big difference to their psychology. Of course, with teenagers, to come back to what my noble friend Lady Blower said, it is not a question of cricket; it is about not being able to purchase sanitary equipment for the beginning of their becoming women, when they are probably most embarrassed. There is clearly a significant increase in mental health problems during GCSE and at A-level at the moment in schools. Teachers are telling me that a great deal.
Secondly, the loss of learning has had a varied impact. It has not been at all consistent across the country, but what is a problem is how uncertainty has affected children’s aspiration. Little things such as wearing masks and washing hands before meals, and the need for teachers to organise that, has been a massive burden, which is often not recognised. The behaviour and attitude in schools is also therefore part of that and that has been reflected in the health concerns of staff and parents, and in what is happening at home and during travel.
I want to emphasise that perhaps not enough has been said about the well-being of teachers, particularly heads of schools. It is critical that something is done to recognise that this is an enormous issue. The UK has celebrated the dedication of NHS workers in an extraordinary way. We have poured money into the health service. But look at schools: they have been almost totally ignored and their leaders have been ignored. We have gone out in the streets to clap the NHS workers; we do not clap our teachers and it is something we need to think about. We need to value teachers above all. It is a very important profession. We risk the loss of staff and we know that many head teachers are beginning to give up that job.
I have a suggestion for the noble Baroness, for whom I have great respect. She has a serious concern for the difficult job she has to do and I really appreciate that. Everything I have seen of her ever since she entered this House, and now as a Minister, I find very impressive, so I hope she will understand that we need, much as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, to find solutions together. First, we need to find additional funding. There is no alternative to that. It is needed to support the well-being of students and teachers and to help many schools. The greatest impact on learning would be to fund additional staff to enable smaller classes, especially in core subjects.
It has been suggested today that we should have longer school days, and perhaps even extended terms. That would be a disaster. It is not what teachers want. I have not found a single head teacher who agrees with that proposal. They do not see it as an advantage, because they think that schoolchildren are already exhausted and that is something they want to avoid. For secondary schools, a first good step by the Government would be to limit payments to the exam boards for assessments that the schools are now doing and ring-fence the money saved for additional support.
We need to think about examinations very carefully. Of course, we cannot do without A-levels in the present structure because of the need for further education and higher education. However, I do not see the value of GCSEs at the present time. Why do we need them at the moment, when schools are under massive pressure and are suddenly being asked to follow a curriculum that is constantly changing, as has already been mentioned? It is not reasonable.
Finally, I want quickly to ask some specific questions.
I am about to come to my final sentence, if I may. Simply, what support is being given to improving virtual learning in schools? I have many questions about that. I have already sent the Minister my comments in a note, so I hope she can answer my questions. I will write to her again asking for the answers.
My Lords, we have heard some 30 contributions today. Instead of reading out my intended speech, which could be repetitive, I wish to say that the pandemic is not only a health problem; it is also about children’s education and futures.
Three years of closedown will affect the future of schoolchildren. It is difficult to forecast the long-term effect of this pandemic era. My prayers are that children will be able to overcome this disadvantage and reach the other shore successfully.
I thank Estelle, the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, although she is not here at the moment. What a wonderful introduction and contribution.
With more than 500,000 under-25s presently unemployed, we have a duty to act now for those individuals and for our country. Of course we do. In my view, an important way of levelling up opportunities for children—in particular furthering their skills and helping to eliminate inequality and child poverty—is reinvesting in our manufacturing industry, which different Governments have allowed to wither on the vine for many years.
Today’s announcement that Vauxhall is offering new product for my plant at Ellesmere Port is potentially great news not only for the workers whose jobs could be at risk, but for the children of those workers and of workers in the vast supply chains that depend on the continued existence of this and other like-minded plants. They will have the chance to acquire useful skills, serve apprenticeships, obtain well-paid jobs and have a future with dignity. In fact, noble Lords may be surprised to know that, through the sports and social club at this one plant, of which I am chairman, 40,000 children—including boys and girls from the age of five upwards—are given sporting activities in just one year. It helps their mental well-being.
Will the Minister join me in calling for a positive strategy to revive not merely the British car industry, which is crying out for investment, but British manufacturing generally and green manufacturing in particular? Every country depends on what it makes. We have a brilliant workforce with all the necessary skills. What we need is a Government committed to investing in it and supporting British manufacturers. This is one way to ensure that children acquire useful training and skills and eliminate inequality and child poverty.
Friends, in my town, my son is a third-generation car worker. He is just about to become a father. I want to make sure that there is a future for this plant and other plants. With that in mind, I thank the House—both Houses, actually—for the tremendous support given in recent times to encourage investment in this plant. On behalf of my town and my family, thank you very much, everybody.
I congratulate my noble friend Lady Morris on her wonderful introduction to this important and pertinent debate. Of course, I also send birthday greetings to both her and Vernon, my noble friend Lord Coaker.
On the first day of our being able to go out,
Echoing the remarks of my noble friend Lady Andrews, I thought of all the babies, children and young people who might have forgotten how to play or socialise and have not had the chance to learn over this pandemic. I also thought of all the children and young people who have not been at school with their mates, and of the damage to their mental health, well-being and learning. The mental health of our children and young people will be the subject of my brief remarks today.
I thank YoungMinds and other organisations for their excellent briefings, not only for today but over many years and certainly over the past year. It is important to state from the outset that the crisis in young people’s mental health predates the pandemic. I have a feeling that the Government are attempting to disguise the fact that many of our health and public services were starved and on their knees before we went into the pandemic, and will blame the pandemic, which undoubtedly made things worse, for the short- comings and shortfalls facing us today. The reality is that child and adolescent mental health services were not expanding fast enough to reach pre-pandemic levels of need, let alone current levels.
The former Children’s Commissioner said in her 2021 annual report that, of the over half a million children and young people referred to CAMHS in 2019-20, 350,000 had their referral closed or were still on a waiting list by the end of the reporting period. Waiting months to help a child is just cruel. NHS Providers found that two-thirds of trust leaders said they are “unable to meet demand” for CAMHS, and every leader surveyed stated that demand for children and young people services is much higher now compared to last year.
All the research shows that things are getting worse for our children and young people. For example, in 2017, suicide was the most common cause of death among boys and girls aged between five and 19, at 16% and 13.3% respectively. We do not know the figures for the past year, but I suspect they will show that those rates have not improved.
NHS Digital research reports that, during lockdown, children and young people may be experiencing anxiety, behavioural problems or increased conflict at home. New research has found that 54% of children and young people with a mental disorder said that lockdown has made their life worse. Parents of children with a mental disorder also reported that their child was more likely to be worried about catching Covid-19, or their family and friends catching it. Some young people have been adversely affected by traumatic experiences, including bereavement, social isolation, a loss of routine, uncertainty about their futures and a breakdown in formal and informal support structures. There has also been an increase in domestic violence. So, we have another pandemic before us: that affecting children’s mental health. There is an urgent need for investment. How much will the Government invest in children and young people’s mental health?
I ask the Minister: will the Government support the creation of early hubs, as suggested by YoungMinds in partnership with a range of children’s mental health organisations? They are calling for a national rollout of early support hub models which would ensure that young people in every area across England could access early support for their mental health. We need to train the workforce. We need to invest in the delivery of early support. That is why the Labour Party announced a children’s recovery plan.
In conclusion, we all accepted the parity of esteem for mental health many years ago. We are a long way from realising it. Surely we need to ensure that the well-being and mental health of our children and young people has to be even more of a priority today than it was two or three years ago. Are this Government prepared to deliver the investment and policy to make that happen?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Thornton. I congratulate and commend my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley on her well-argued and well-documented speech, and I wish her and my noble friend from the other place who is now here, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, very happy birthdays.
This is a timely debate, considering the levels of deprivation and poverty throughout many parts of the UK, which have deepened, and considering that lives have become tougher for many people as a result of the pandemic, not least those of children and young people. They have had to do their schoolwork, their play and recreation in totally different ways. Lest we be in any doubt, young people and children depend on social interaction, whether in their family, their community or with their friends. In the last 14 months, that has been sadly lacking for many young people.
Young people have been affected greatly, particularly regarding education, health and ever-expanding inequality. I want to focus on health, well-being and the needs of young people and children, and to ascertain from the Minister how the Government will address the requirements of this group. If the Government are serious about levelling up, in the context of Northern Ireland, where waiting lists for various types of health appointments, and waiting lists generally, are much higher than in other parts of the UK, there needs to be a UK-wide strategy for young people in order to deal with those waiting lists and in particular illnesses in the mental health sphere, and to ensure that we can all deal with those issues on that UK-wide basis.
Throughout the course of this pandemic, young people have seen, on average, a generally declining state of happiness as they have experienced greater negative impacts on their mental health and well-being—a point that has already been referenced by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. That is perhaps because of that increased amount of isolation and lack of social interaction. This also seems to be having an on-average higher impact on females, those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs or pre-existing mental health needs.
As already referenced, YoungMinds conducted a survey on the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of young people aged 13-25 who had, at some point in their lives, reached out for mental health support. The survey of 2,438 young people found that: 75% found the most recent lockdown harder to cope with; 67% thought the pandemic would have long-term negative effects on their mental health; and 79% believed their mental health would start to improve once the restrictions were lifted. We know that things are more complex and complicated than that. The Government should be focused on reviewing, building up and reforming the mental health support available in schools. I do not believe what we currently have is capable of handling a rebuilding of young people’s mental health.
In conclusion, the Government have a responsibility to ensure that private local mental health charities that people depend on survive the economic hardships of the pandemic. Could the Minister indicate what assistance and support the Government will give them to do just that? I am in no doubt that the Government should be focused on ensuring the building up of local mental health charities and support groups, as local groups have a better ability to assess and understand the case-by-case situation of young people struggling with mental health.
I look forward to the Minister’s answers on these issues.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, a co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Bullying, and a patron of the Traveller Movement.
I wish a happy birthday to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. I offer many congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, on securing this wide-ranging and important debate and for her wonderful introduction. She was right to say that Covid’s effect on children is not a competition; many others have been severely affected by it through health, wealth or disruption to the public services they receive. But we, this adult generation, hold our country and our world in stewardship for future generations—something we are not too good at, as they rightly often remind us. The support that our children get today to help them to catch up with their wealthier, healthier counterparts is vital, and this Government have a heavy responsibility to bear. The noble Baroness, Lady Blower—how good it is to have her expertise in your Lordships’ House—reminded us that 4 million children and young people are trapped in poverty and that these numbers have and will increase during the pandemic.
We have heard from others about the problems of schooling during lockdown—whether it is the experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, of home schooling her daughters, or the Minister’s announcements of free laptops not matching the reality across the country—and about the extraordinary dedication of our teachers and school staff, who ensured that children were taught online while at the same time preparing to reopen under complex, constantly changing, strict guidelines that often were not appropriate for their school settings. From these Benches, we also note that the Government had to be embarrassed by Marcus Rashford into providing school meals during the holidays and that school staff also got food and support right to the front doors of these extremely vulnerable children during lockdown. This went well above and beyond their staff responsibilities, and we salute them. Can the Minister say whether the lessons, cross-department, have been learned from the clumsy mishandling of support to the poorest people and their children, and that it will never happen again? The best way of thanking these school staff and governors is to ensure that these problems are never repeated.
The Department for Education’s recovery plan was shot down in flames within 24 hours of the funding announcement with the shock resignation of Sir Kevan Collins. The well-respected education recovery tsar rightly said that a fund that provided only 10% of the amount he estimated is needed for levelling up again is no fund. It spoke volumes about the Government’s commitment to their manifesto promise of helping the poorest children in the most disadvantaged areas—and not in a good way. As bank managers used to say about bad cheques, the words and the figures do not agree. I echo my noble friend Lady Garden’s demand for fewer words and more action, right now.
My noble friend Lord Shipley reminded us of the National Audit Office view of the Department for Education’s proposed catch-up funds, as well as other areas of unequal support—especially those in left-behind areas. He also wisely proposed that catch-up spending should be regarded as capital, not revenue spending, because of the long-term benefits to our economy, as today’s beneficiaries become the drivers of our future economy.
The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, both talked about the specific difficulties faced by disabled children and young people. During a Question earlier this week, I asked the Minister if she would ensure that specialist catch-up funding for these children, as outlined by the Disabled Children’s Partnership, will include speech and language therapy, and physical and occupational therapy, which they have missed for a year. They provide the most vital bedrock of opportunity for such children to be able just to communicate, to learn and to play. To suggest that money is available in a general fund is not good enough. Unless there is specific funding, and the £400 million for the social care support needs of these children, it will never be a top priority. Those of us who live with disabilities have learned that support is always at the back end of the queue, and rarely are there funds left to help these children.
There is an urgent need for children with major underlying health conditions to have access to delayed operations and procedures as soon as possible. Waiting for these interventions often prevents them being able to participate in school and in society. There is also a backlog of the minor surgery and health appointments that are key to very young children being able to learn. Those with, for example, glue ear, who find communication difficult in class, will be held back until they are treated. This must be a priority.
One good piece of news is that evidence of in-person bullying has reduced, which is perhaps not surprising with lengthy lockdowns. But unfortunately this is balanced by evidence of cyberbullying, especially pressuring young people to take inappropriate photos of themselves which are then widely circulated online, which shows the threat of cyberbullying.
In this, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month, the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, was right to remind us of the particular problems that GRT children face, not only in education but in discrimination. A pre-pandemic joint meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma and on Bullying heard evidence not just of GRT children being bullied by other pupils but, shockingly, bullied by their teachers too. GRT children and adults already face extreme inequalities and this needs to be remedied, including the education of some professionals who should know better and be there to help them.
My noble friends Lady Garden and Lady Tyler, as well as other Peers, both talked about the vital importance of properly funding early years, whether in more formal settings, such as nurseries and reception classes, or childcare support for parents. Early years support must form a central plank of the Government’s Covid recovery and afterwards. It is vital if levelling up is to happen. I hope that the Minister can explain why some parents who do not earn enough are not eligible for childcare funds. All the evidence from the OECD shows that early years support for children from the most deprived backgrounds is the best start for them in their lives. It puts them on an almost equal footing with other children, and that has consequences for their qualifications at 16, 18 and at 21, as well as for their careers and their health and well-being as adults. Any Government who speak of levelling up should be investing in services from birth onwards.
Will the Government also reverse the cuts in health visitors, community nurses and, critically, school nurses? We must put investment back into these services. Can I ask the Minister if there are plans to remedy these changes, which are affecting too many disadvantaged children?
My noble friend Lady Garden also spoke of the need for extended schools programmes. Any catch-up needs to look beyond the essential but narrow academic tutoring that is provided in the Covid recovery plan. Music, dance, drama, art and sport give children confidence and essential life skills, and are life-affirming —and make them very employable.
Although we are told that many children do not get Covid, or if they do it is asymptomatic, some do get it, and an increasing number appear to have long Covid, with neurological, cardiac and lung problems. It is good that the NHS is opening so many long Covid clinics, but schools often do not understand it. Can the Minister ensure that schools are given briefings on how to help children with long Covid and remind them of their responsibilities, as set out the in Government’s statutory guidance on supporting children with medical conditions in school, which tells schools that they must follow the advice of doctors and not come to their own decisions about a child’s illness?
That goes also for a small number of children who are clinically extremely vulnerable and have had to shield since last March. There are others who are young carers for parents or family members who are clinically extremely vulnerable, and they still have to be extremely careful. I am sorry to say that some schools, local authorities and even Ministers have not understood the risk that these children and their families face, and they are not following NHS advice either. Some parents have even been fined for the non-attendance of their child who is shielding. Can the Minister ensure that schools are told how to support these children who have to continue to shield despite vaccinations and despite lockdown lifting?
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, rightly talked about the role of the office for health promotion, which should have children’s health at its heart, including funding to local authorities for swimming pools and other sports and leisure facilities to encourage our children to learn good habits early.
My noble friend Lady Tyler talked, as did others, about the problems in children’s mental health. In coalition we set in legislation parity of esteem for mental health, but, six years on, we are still far from that happening.
The summary by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, of the shocking evidence on child poverty should give the Government pause for thought. They cannot level up without providing support to those children in the poorest families. She is right that the Government must will the means, because without it they will not achieve levelling-up targets.
It is not just about benefits. My noble friend Lady Tyler referred to today’s report on current arrangements for children’s social care work, which now focuses principally only on emergency actions, not on family support and intervention to prevent children being removed from their families. As she said, there needs to be a statutory duty on agencies to provide support and early intervention, with the appropriate funding. What priority will this get in the spending review?
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds was right to say that the two-child limit on child benefit needs to be scrapped. The families eligible to claim child benefit desperately need the funding, and the decision keeps children in poverty.
While everyone was relieved that the £20 a week cut to universal credit was delayed, it is still likely to happen later this year. The Prime Minister, and particularly the Chancellor of the Exchequer, must understand that any refusal to cancel the cut permanently will once again demonstrate a mismatch between their words and their figures. The cut will hit 6 million people, 38% of whom already have a job, and another 40% of whom are seeking one, and it will plunge further thousands into poverty.
Much of this debate has focused on problems but I want to end on a positive note. I watch the children in my family and I see hope, love and ambition. I see care for others and a renewed understanding of the importance of family, even after months in lockdown. So many people need extra help following the pandemic, so please will the Government ensure that their actions mirror their words? As Nelson Mandela said:
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
My Lords, we are all indebted to my noble friend Lady Morris for sponsoring this debate and for opening it so passionately and powerfully. I think she has inspired many of the subsequent speakers, because there really has been a high standard of contribution today, including from the Benches opposite. But I have to say that fewer than one-quarter of the speakers were from the governing party, and it will not have escaped the Minister’s attention that, with one exception—there always has to be an outlier, I suppose—the speeches were if not outright critical then certainly not very supportive of what the Government have done thus far for children in the time of the pandemic.
The pandemic exposed deep inequalities in our society, but of course it did not create them, as many noble Lords have said. Child poverty was rising before the pandemic and is set to rise further still. The figures on child poverty have been well referenced and I will not repeat them, but my noble friend Lady Sherlock referenced working poverty, which is in itself a shocking term. For the figure of those classified as being in poverty to encompass 31% of all children in one of the richest countries in the world is nothing short of a national disgrace. And yet it seems the Government just do not really get it.
The Child Poverty Commission was founded in 2010; in 2012, it became the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. In 2016, “Child Poverty” was dropped from the title. I do not like the term “social mobility”, which suggests that the status quo is somehow tolerable providing that a few people manage to clamber up the ladder a level or two. I prefer “social justice”, which is much more meaningful and a much greater prize if it can be achieved. However, it can stem only from ambition, something which the Government certainly do not have enough of. The impact of poverty on children is well documented. Those from low-income families are much more likely to experience poorer physical and mental health, do less well in school and have fewer social and economic opportunities in the future. The charity Action for Children, one of many children’s charities which sent noble Lords excellent briefings in advance of this debate, established a coronavirus emergency fund. The families which it helped revealed that over one-third of households were experiencing financial pressures due to the increased costs of the pandemic, two-fifths were struggling to feed their children and one-third needed resources for children’s learning and play.
Even when forced to reckon with the scale of child poverty in this country, it seems that the Government are not inclined to help. They did everything they could to avoid providing meals for children outside the school term—in the midst of a pandemic. Even now, the Government’s free school meal plans will cover only 16 of 30 weekdays during the summer. More recently, the DfE changed the way that the pupil premium is calculated, clawing back hundreds of millions of pounds of school funding from the children who need it most. As my noble friend Lady Blower said, this is not a one-off hit for schools as the Government claim; it will come back next year and the year after. Labour’s shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, had to fight tooth and nail to stop the Government cancelling the £20 uplift to universal credit. Even now, the Chancellor is still insisting that the uplift must be scrapped in the autumn, despite the evidence that this will plunge hundreds of thousands more into poverty.
We need to look at urgent support to allow our children to process the events of the past year and to bounce back from them, such as quality, accessible mental health provision and longer-term goals, giving them optimism for what they can achieve in the future. That is why Labour is supporting the National Education Union’s No Child Left Behind campaign on child poverty, to which several noble Lords referred. This needs to be a cross-government effort, recognising the challenge that our children are facing, the opportunities they deserve and the huge potential they have.
The pandemic forced the education system to transform overnight. Schools had to close their doors to the vast majority of children and provide remote learning to millions of pupils. It was pleasing—indeed encouraging —to see the extent to which leaders, teachers, parents and children rose to that challenge. I must mention the reference by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds to his 10 year-old grandson. I certainly recognise the difficulties that he had. I have a 10 year-old, but he is a son not a grandson, so I am not able to go home at the end of the day and reflect on what I have had to do, or have not done. It is very much the blind being led by the enlightened. I am reminded of someone who sees a person out with a great big dog and asks who is taking who for a walk. That question could be asked in much the same way when it comes to me giving my son home tuition.
This enormous effort by everybody connected with education took place almost despite the Government, and that should be a source of shame. Over the course of the pandemic, the Conservatives seem to have treated the nation’s children as an afterthought, consistently failing to safeguard their well-being and learning. They caused chaos and additional stress for A-level, GCSE and BTEC pupils last summer and then failed to put a plan in place for this year’s exams until only weeks before they were due to go ahead. As noble Lords have heard, over 1 million children were left without adequate access to an electronic device for months, unable to take part in remote learning. In contrast, Labour’s vision is to make Britain the best place to grow up, by prioritising children’s well-being, education and life chances. On Tuesday, noble Lords discussed the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. If our young people are to have not just the opportunity to develop the skills for the economy of the future but the ability to do so, the building blocks need to be put in place now. As my noble friend Lady McIntosh said, that will not happen under the present narrow national curriculum. I regret having to say to her—I am sure she is aware of it anyway—that the problem will intensify if the Government’s plans to restructure initial teacher training on the basis of political ideology come to fruition. As my noble friend Lord Puttnam said, many of us will meet that threat head-on.
Noble Lords will have received the briefing paper from the Child Poverty Action Group. The package of measures set out by shadow Secretary of State Kate Green two weeks ago very much echoes those plans for extended schools, where services are delivered that go beyond the core function of a classroom education for children within the normal school day. Schools need to be given the resources to provide every child with new opportunities to socialise, learn and develop post-pandemic working to reverse the widening gap in learning. With extra-curricular activities, mental health support in schools and small-group teaching available to all pupils who will benefit, Labour’s plans prioritise children’s well-being and social development as an essential part of supporting learning. As my noble friend Lady Morris said, there is an urgent need for quality mental health support in every school, with every child having access to qualified in-school counselling staff, alongside boosting well-being through extra activities and an education recovery premium which supports children who faced the greatest disruption during the pandemic, from early years through to further education.
Unlike this Government, the Government of Wales yesterday announced plans that appreciate the magnitude of the problem, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Wilcox. I certainly hope that this Government follow the suggestion of my noble friend Lady Andrews to do what it takes to bring Sir Kevan Collins back. Yes, it would mean providing the resources he called for, but it would be a sign that the Government really were committed to being bold, to use a term the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, mentioned. The Government are showing a lack of ambition for our children’s futures. Lockdown conditions had an undeniable effect on children and young people’s social and emotional well-being, as the charity YoungMinds found out that we have now increased from one in nine children with mental health problems to one in six—and that situation is only going to deteriorate. That is why its advocacy of early support hubs is an interesting idea. These would offer easy-to-access drop-in support on a self-referral basis for young people who do not meet the threshold for children and young people’s mental health services, or with emerging mental health needs, right up to the age of 25.
As I said, too often children seem to have been an afterthought for this Government. Children need to be at the centre of the Government’s levelling-up agenda, supported by a Minister for Children with the right to attend Cabinet and a cross-government strategy which should include early support for the many families who have struggled to access the support they need, especially new parents.
There has been a rise in the number of children entering care due to the increased pressure on families during lockdown and, sadly, a rise in abuse and neglect. Children who have been in local authority care generally have poorer outcomes than their peers, and they are often faced with a cliff edge at the age of 18 as support drops off, but it can be even younger. We have argued against and remain extremely concerned that recent regulations continue to allow the use of unregulated accommodation for looked-after children aged 16 and 17. We would expect far better for our own children, so surely we must demand better for children looked after by the state.
The first report of the government-funded review into children’s social care was published today, as has been referenced by noble Lords. It contains a basic contradiction, however, highlighting the fact that England’s children’s social services are under significant financial pressure” after what the report describes as years of cuts, during which council-run family support services have been reduced by a third. But it then claims that funding has barely kept pace with demand for children’s social care over the past decade. The truth is that it has not kept pace at all, and unless the review eventually recommends significant additional resources, the cuts to services that it correctly identifies will not be reversed.
As my noble friend Lady Andrews said, early years is a crucial time in children’s development, yet earlier this week we had the shocking announcement of a systematic and deliberate underfunding of early years childcare in the education sector by the Government. That was revealed in a report by the Early Years Alliance, which had to use the Freedom of Information Act to receive that information. It is not surprising that the Government fought for two years to block it.
These findings are truly shocking and make the need for an independent review of child care affordability and funding all the more urgent. Research shows that investment in early years education saves the Exchequer money in the long run. The Government’s short-sighted funding decisions affect the life chances not only of children but of their parents.
The Government proclaim their intention to level up but before they can begin to do that, they must arrest the downward direction of travel for children’s services across the board. The pandemic has been a time of loss and sacrifice for the whole country, and indeed across the globe. After such disruption and asking children and young people to give up so much—largely, it should be said, for the protection of others, including the age demographic of this Chamber—we must make support for their health, well-being and education our first priority. We must match the ambition that children have for their own futures and provide the investment and opportunity to back that up.
As my noble friend Lady Morris said in her inspiring opening to this debate, the public are looking for change in how we provide services for children. We need a government department with the ambition to take the lead while working collaboratively with other departments. The DfE announced this week a new education and skills delivery unit. I hope the Minister will tell us that this is the first step towards cross-departmental working, properly resourced and with the needs of children at the heart of every policy. It pains me to say it, but I am afraid that I lack the confidence, based on the Government’s record, that we should expect such a change in direction and priorities any time soon.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for spending her time here in the Chamber today, on her birthday, to debate this issue. As she acknowledged, her Motion is wide ranging, but I will attempt to stray into the other departmental areas that have been outlined by noble Lords today. I do hope, however, that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, does not decide next year that it is his turn to put down a wide-ranging debate on his birthday.
I assure noble Lords that the Department for Education is aware of their passion and ambition, as well as the scale of the challenge. This is central to our main purpose as a Government: to help level up and build back better from the pandemic. Although I cannot give the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, a cheque from the Treasury, the Prime Minister has made it clear that there will be more money coming down the track. Children and their educational recovery are a priority as we look forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, also challenged the Government in his impassioned speech on whether what we are doing will work. I assure noble Lords that the extensive recovery package is underpinned by its evidence-based nature. We have decided to invest over £1 billion in one-to-one and small-group tutoring, some delivered through tuition partners and academic mentors, and some through school-led tutoring. We have decided to prioritise that because the evidence tells us of the months of catch-up that this will deliver for young people. That is a key thread for us.
Some £500 million is also to be invested in professional development and support for teachers. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked whether we really needed to know that having the teacher in front of the student was a priority. In education, there is a clamour for funding lots of excellent things, but we are clear on the importance of having the teacher in front of the child and that giving them professional development, including through the early career framework, which will begin in full this September, and enabling investment in mid and senior-level leadership, is an appropriate way, based on the evidence, to spend this money at this time because it is one of the ways to enable our children to catch up.
We have also realised in the light of the evidence that certain cohorts of disadvantaged children seem to have been more greatly affected by the lockdown. That is why tutoring is a pillar directed at them. We also know that schools need more in order to support children with special educational needs and disabilities, which is why, within a number of the planks of the recovery package, the funding is weighted towards such children. As I have told noble Lords before, that began with the £650 million pupil premium and has continued with the £302 million recovery premium and with the summer schools. In answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, I can assure him and other noble Lords that we are funding what the evidence tells us will work to help these children catch up as quickly as possible.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and my noble friend Lord Moynihan talked about the centrality of children, children’s rights and the place of children now. As noble Lords will be aware, the family test was introduced in 2014. It incorporates the family explicitly into domestic policy-making and ensures that potential impacts on family relationships are taken into account.
As I am sure noble Lords are aware, the Secretary of State for Education is the Cabinet member in charge of driving family policy through. A number of noble Lords—the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and my noble friends Lady Wyld and Lord Bourne—mentioned the development of the family hub model and its importance. We have just finished procurement for a national centre for family hubs, and we are investing £14 million in that initiative. Local models are delivering, and we know we need to spread that best practice throughout this country.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Bennett, my noble friend Lord Moynihan and the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, mentioned the importance of physical education for children’s well-being. That is why we have opened up a bidding fund of £200 million for summer schools, and well over 80% of schools have asked to be involved in that.
I assure noble Lords that in my role in the department, when I look at schools and the successful schools in our country, I focus on those with a disproportionate number of SEND children and of free school meals children, such as Dixons Allerton Academy in Bradford and Ark St Alban’s Academy in Birmingham. Over 70% of Ark St Alban’s children are on free school meals, and it achieves great educational outcomes for children. That is what we are pointing to.
When we look at funds such as the summer school funds, I also look at why certain schools have not bid, to check what is happening. Sometimes, when schools are under stress and in crisis, they might not even have the capacity to ask the department for money. I check to see what is happening to the funds we place, whereas other aspects of the recovery package, such as the initial £650 million, went out through the normal funding mechanism from the department.
We have shown that we are ready to deliver for our children. As a number of noble Lords mentioned—the noble Lords, Lord Shipley, Lord Patel and Lord Winston, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Garden and Lady Morris—an important part of what we have sought to deliver for children in that recovery package has been the remote education package. We have funded Google Classroom or Microsoft Education for more than 6,000 schools.
I know that some criticism has been levelled at the department’s provision of laptops and connectivity to children. By August 2020 the department had delivered 220,000 laptops. It may not be the most glamorous part of the department to talk about, but I have the privilege of overseeing the department’s commercial function. It is too easy to forget that during the first lockdown, there was a massive disruption in the global supply of technology products. Virtually the whole world—I use that term not accurately but as a turn of phrase—was seeking to buy laptops. The department’s commercial function, enabling us to purchase and distribute 1.3 million laptops, was no mean feat in the circumstances we faced.
Am I therefore saying to noble Lords that that was perfect? No, of course I am not, but we rose to that challenge and also provided 75,000 4G wireless routers. We spent £400 million on this overall. Many noble Lords will be aware that many of our mobile phone companies also rose to the challenge and offered free data to so many children. This provision was in addition to the 2.9 million laptops and computers that existed before the pandemic started. We have really sought to rise to that challenge.
For instance, a recent initiative from the department, Connect the Classroom, is trying to get some, particularly rural, classrooms, the speed of broadband they need to deliver remote education. We know that many teachers went above and beyond to assist parents in helping their children to access and use the technology that we have provided. As the Prime Minister said, there is more coming down the track, but a huge amount of money—over £3 billion now—has been put into education recovery support. That is on top of an uplift announced in 2019 of £14.4 billion going into schools overall.
Of course, many ideas, for instance the review of the school day—which my noble friend Lord Bourne and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, mentioned—were the work of Sir Kevan Collins. We reiterate our thanks and respect for his work and the time that he spent assessing needs. But there were various views on the extension of the school day and the noble Lord, Lord Winston, expressed the concern of teachers. Beside the financial implications, we have now put out a short consultation about that with teachers and other stakeholders.
The noble Lords, Lord Jones, Lord Patel and Lord Woodley, mentioned skills. We are aware that youth employment prospects have been disproportionately affected by the economic fallout. The ONS data continue to highlight the significant impact of the pandemic on the labour market and unemployment is expected to continue rising during 2021. That is why the Chancellor announced support for jobs and skills, with a focus on young people, in the summer economic update of July 2020. The plan included the £2 billion Kickstart scheme to create hundreds of thousands of new, fully subsidised jobs for young people aged 16 to 24 on universal credit, and a £900 million investment to scale up employment support schemes and double the number of work coaches to 27,000.
The noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Jones, also mentioned technical digital skills. I am extremely proud to be the Minister taking the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill through your Lordships’ House. At the same time, we have introduced T-levels, a high-quality alternative to A-levels. Over 250 employers have determined the content of those T-levels, so students can gain the best knowledge, practical skills and grounding in their first career. I assure noble Lords that the first T-levels will include digital skills. Noble Lords may be aware that we have also rolled out a new thing called a digital skills boot camp, which is a 12-week programme to enable people to retrain. We are about to launch a second wave of those.
The noble Lord, Lord Patel, also noted the importance of STEM subjects. I share his enthusiasm in this area and emphasise that, over recent years, we have seen an increase in girls taking STEM subjects at A-level and are committed to seeing that increase continue. As Minister for Women, I also had the particular pleasure of meeting young women who have taken those courses and STEM apprenticeships. The new specialist sixth-form colleges for 16 to 19 year-olds, focusing on maths, have a specific target for outreach to increase the number of girls taking maths, further maths and physics at those institutions.
I turn to another plank of this debate, namely health. We are aware of the unacceptable variations in health outcomes for children across the country, both in geographical and population groups, and of the differences between some of the most deprived areas compared to the least. For instance, emergency hospital admissions for children under five can be 38% higher.
Early years was mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Wyld and Lady Andrews, and the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Watson. We have set up the Healthy Child Programme for nought to 19 year-olds, which is universal in reach, but personalised to the health inequalities in the early years of life. This programme is designed to identify and treat problems early and help parents to care well for their children, change and improve behaviour, and prevent preventable diseases.
There is also the focus on physical activity as part of health and well-being, which I mentioned before and I believe was also mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. We have announced more than £10 million of funding for schools across England this academic year to enable them to take part in existing schools sports and swimming activities outside school hours. I will take back the specific request by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for a meeting about the evidence on the extension of the school day. I also have the pleasure of being responsible for the out-of-school settings part of the department’s work.
We have also launched Tackling Obesity: Empowering Adults and Children to Live Healthier Lives, an overarching campaign to set out measures to get the nation fit and healthy, which will protect against Covid and help the NHS. Noble Lords will be aware that the sugar tax was recently introduced and funds from it have been funding additional PE support in our schools.
I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and my noble friend Lord Moynihan, who mentioned the office for health promotion, that it will be under the professional leadership of the Chief Medical Officer. It will work systematically to tackle the top preventable risk factors to improve public health and reduce health inequalities.
Another important area raised by my noble friend Lady Wyld is perinatal health. The NHS Long Term Plan includes a commitment to enable at least 66,000 women with moderate to severe complex perinatal mental health difficulties to access specialist, evidence-based care in the community by 2023-24.
When I sit here in your Lordships’ House, listening to noble Lords, I am working out who has been speaking about what. The most frequently raised issue has been child mental health, mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris, Lady Massey, Lady Ritchie and Lady Chakrabarti, the noble Lords, Lord Davies, Lord Winston, Lord Watson, Lord Bichard and Lord Patel, my noble friend Lord Bourne and two noble Lords whose names I cannot read because of my terrible handwriting and who I will write to afterwards.
There has been a particular impact on young people’s mental health so, on
That sum is in addition to the £79 million announced in March to boost children and young persons’ mental health support in response to the pandemic by increasing the number of mental health support teams in schools and colleges to around 400 schools and colleges. That will cover an estimated 3 million children and young people by 2023. Furthermore, we have a mental health in education action group working within the department, led by my honourable friends the Minister for Children and Families, Vicky Ford, and the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan. I was in a school recently where a staggering 70% of the children had had a significant bereavement, so I do not want to underestimate what has been facing our schools as they have gone back. What I have outlined on mental health support is in addition to the NHS long-term plan.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, in his impassioned speech outlined the issues to do with inequality. Providing support for vulnerable children and young people is a priority for the Government, which is why the DfE leads a cross-government response to safeguard and protect vulnerable children and young people. It is important in this regard to look at the investment that is going into the early years; we know what can happen if children do not get that good start, as in the Andrea Leadsom review into the first 1,001 critical days. That is why we are screening for language development and development generally between the age of two and two and a half, as the noble Lord, Lord Wyld, outlined. The family hub is catching that, to enable children to be school ready. That is why we are also investing £153 million in the early years workforce and why, in the third lockdown, the early years settings remained open—and all credit to them in the work that they have done.
Of course, families come in all different shapes and sizes. The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, rightly brought to our attention kinship carers. I shall write to her in more detail. We are working to ensure that local services are joined up across government and locally. As the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, noted, there is no single published strategy for vulnerable children. However, through the pandemic the DfE has led across government to support that, and has reported to the Cabinet Office since April 2020. That has cemented cross-government working, including with Ofsted, PHE and NHS England.
Alongside vulnerable children, we are aware that the pandemic has been particularly challenging for children with special educational needs and disabilities,. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, who brought up that important area. We have invested £42 million in that area and resourced the Family Fund with more than £27 million to get that support, by way of a grant, to families on low incomes and to those children who have special educational needs and disabilities.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Blower and Lady Brinton, talked about the pupil premium. For mainstream and special schools, we will now base the pupil premium funding for 2021-22 on October rather than January census data. That does not mean that the pupil premium funding is decreasing; on the contrary, we expect pupil premium funding to increase to more than £2.5 billion a year. As a result of those changes, a typical school will receive an increase in their pupil premium funding for this year.
I am fast running out of time, but I want to respond to the point from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds about young carers. We offered a school place for vulnerable children, but this has been a difficult situation for young carers, with their caring responsibilities often increasing during the pandemic due to their particular circumstances. Obviously, many of them got the free school meal vouchers and many of them would have had a computer, but I shall write to the right reverend Prelate to outline in more detail the specific support for young carers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, both spoke powerfully about child poverty. I do not think that anyone here accepts that we should be complacent about that—we are not, and we fully recognise the profound impact that the pandemic has had on many of the poorest families. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, highlighted the fact that hunger is a scourge on our society. Obviously, there has been an increase in universal credit. We spend more than £110 billion a year—we did last year—on in-work benefit support, and there was the £500 or so working tax credit support, which was the equivalent of the £20 a week that we gave in additional universal credit support. There was also the £229 million given to local authorities to deal with particular needs, which was ring-fenced mainly for bills and food. So there has been considerable support.
As noble Lords may be aware, figures came out today on free school meals, with 1.7 million pupils now eligible for a school meal, which will save families around £400 a year. In addition, around 1.3 million infants in school will benefit from a free school meal, and, obviously, free school meals were extended to disadvantaged students within the FE sector. Overall—although there were teething problems, we can politely say—the Edenred voucher scheme, whereby we paid the face value of the voucher and not more than that, was worth more than £470 million.
Before I close, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, that period poverty is a societal ill. That is why we have made free period products available for state-funded primary and secondary colleges in England. The scheme is demand-led, which means that schools and colleges can order the products when they need them. I believe—I am going from memory here—that we have also extended the same provision in our prisons to those who need them there.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I want to make it clear that the passion, ambition and determination are there in the department. We are collecting the evidence and we know how much children need to catch up, not just academically but on those social skills that many noble Lords outlined. They also need to catch up on those relational skills where they have missed out, and in terms of their physical activity and well-being.
The noble Lord, Lord Bird, spoke about those in temporary accommodation, as many noble Lords have today. I have friends in a two-bedroom flat; there are two adults and three children, with no outside space. When one knows such families, it is shocking to see the decline in the health and well-being of young people when they have not been able to get out. We have always made it clear in the guidance to schools to use outside space as much as they can to improve the health and well-being of their students.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed. I have obviously not mentioned all of your Lordships, but I think some of you will be found on my WhatsApp message as somebody who will receive a letter from the department.
On a personal level, I thank everyone for their birthday wishes. I am sure I can speak on behalf of my noble friend Lord Coaker in saying that neither of us could think of a better way of spending our birthdays than with the 42 people who have been part of this debate.
On a more serious note, I thank the speakers for their contributions to this really good debate. I have learned a great deal. Every Member who spoke has shown a concern and passion, not just for children but with some really good ideas of what we can do to improve things. There has been cross-party agreement, first, about the importance of this area; secondly, that it is not right as it is; and, thirdly, that it is worthy of prioritising to try to get it right.
I want to make two or three points in closing. First, I acknowledge the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, because I did not mention children with disabilities. I realise that this is what happens: it tends to be a bolt-on and if you make a mainstream speech, you tend not to include those groups. We should never get to a position where the voice of a group that finds it difficult to have its voice heard is further excluded because the voice of another group that finds it difficult to get its heard rises to the top. It is not a competition between the voices of the poor and the voices of people with disability. The noble Lord’s speech was a timely reminder for my thinking to be more integrated than it sometimes is.
Of all the speakers, perhaps my noble friends Lord Puttnam and Lady McIntosh said the most about us acknowledging the people who have delivered the services. Again, as we finish the debate I put on record my thanks to not just the teachers and school leaders, and everyone who works in schools, but all those who have worked with children’s services over the last two years. Their contribution has been immense and their energy levels must be almost sapped. They must be hugely frustrated in some ways about what they have not been able to achieve, but we are immensely proud of what they have been able to.
I will refer to the Minister’s speech. I thank her, as ever, for her detailed consideration, careful listening and very thorough responses to what we say. I have never questioned her commitment to her portfolio; she is a shining example of really caring about the job that she does. But I want to take two points, because they lead into the most important thing in regard to this debate.
First, on the evidence base, tutoring is evidence-based. Ironically, it was the Education Endowment Foundation, set up by Kevan Collins, which proved that. We had the man leading the project telling us all that tutoring was evidence-based, but nowhere in that evidence does it say that by itself it is enough. That is the crucial thing: by itself, it is a grain of sand within what needs to be done.
I get frustrated when Ministers say to me, “But we are looking at the evidence, and it points to tutoring”. I cannot argue with that, but it is not enough. It is the same with the resources: I end up thinking that all those billions of pounds, which I cannot even imagine, are not enough because they have not delivered the results. The best analogy that I can think of is: if Ministers were to go to a school that was bottom of the performance tables and it said, “But we have tried our best. We have done everything. We have done this, that and the other”, the Minister would say, “You are at the bottom. This is not good enough”. This is exactly the same.
Whatever money has been spent, you have to look at the output, not the input. I am not arguing with the billions spent, but I am looking at what this has achieved and saying that it has not delivered the goods. That has to be the agenda for going forward. With respect, if I was a Minister, I would be defending the actions of the Government, but we need a sign from them that they are also thinking that it is not enough. If they can say to us, “We know that it is not enough”, I would give them a bit more credit for what they have done—I really would. It is not enough and we need some further thinking.
For my last point, I will mention some other noble Lords’ speeches to illustrate it because they really struck my mind. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, who spoke about health, and to my noble friend Lady Sherlock, who spoke about benefits. I then listened to my noble friend Lady Drake. They all spoke early on, shortly after I did, about kinship carers. I try to speak in most education debates in the House of Lords, and I say to myself that I do it because I care about and am interested in children. Before those noble Lords spoke, I did not know about what they said: I did not know as much detail on the mental health of children as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, told us about, I had no understanding of the complexity of child poverty that my noble friend Lady Sherlock told us about, and I had not really thoroughly understood how kinship carers can get left out. That is a problem because they care about children too.
Those three people speak in the House time after time because they all care about children. I rarely speak in the same debates as them because we discuss not children but the separate siloes. I speak in the education debates, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, speaks in the health debates and my noble friend Lady Sherlock speaks in the debates on pensions and benefits. That is just an illustration.
As mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, who of course has a first-class background in this area, and the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, the big win here is changing the machinery of government to deliver for children. Given the way that the Department for Education, the lead department for education, is structured at the moment, it will not work. We need something bigger than that—whether it is a Cabinet Minister for children or not I do not know, but there are enough good minds for us to do the thinking, as has been shown in this debate. That is where I want to take us next.
Let us not argue about what has been achieved but instead take from this the joint and shared ambition that I have heard to do more and do better. The machinery of government that we have at the moment does not quite deliver that, but, in this House alone, there is enough good will, energy, experience and expertise to at least take us to the next stage. I thank all Members for their very valuable contributions. I have learned a great deal and I will go away and think about this. Meanwhile, I beg to move.