Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 35 - 39)



  35. It is nice to see Rosemary here again, because the whole Committee did visit Peep in Oxford. Rosemary is the director of Peers Early Education Partnership (Peep) which is concerned with early literacy and works with parents and babies in one of the most deprived areas of Oxford. Peep is also the lead partner in the Sure Start Project in Oxford. Just to get on with it, Rosemary, you have heard some of the questions we have been asking. What did you like/dislike about the Committee's Report? Shall we start off from that?

  (Ms Roberts) We liked it very much. We very much welcomed the consistent reflection of good practice in the report and appreciated the time and care involved in it. There were seven aspects that we particularly welcomed. One was the recognition of parents' critical role in relation to their children's learning. The second one was the view of the years from birth to five as the first phase of education, and involving families and parents is crucial in that, and the focus on integration which was implicit in the recommendation of a single government department. We very much welcomed the emphasis on children's personal, social and emotional development in relation to learning. We very much welcomed the many recommendations on quality assurance in relation to Early Years workforce and training and inspection. In relation to funding, we were glad to see the acknowledgment of the need for long-term funding for Early Years work. We welcomed the recognition of diversity, and, in relation to research, we were glad to see the acknowledgment of the essential relationship between policy and research. Those were the things that were really welcomed. There was not anything in the report with which we disagreed, but we did feel it fell short in one respect—well, in one particular respect from our perspective—and that is in the provision for supporting the development of the very youngest children from birth to three. There is a great deal in the report about the importance of parents but no clear acknowledgment of the fact that the vast majority of children of this age in the United Kingdom spend the vast majority of their time with their main carer at home. In spite of this fact, our current thinking and government current thinking about how to support these children relates almost exclusively to settings and to involving parents in the work of the settings. Several recent government documents provide evidence of this. Perhaps I could refer the Committee to Social Trends 2000 published by the Office for National Statistics and to Parents' Demand for Childcare published by the DfEE in March 2000. The evidence in these documents invites a kind of iceberg analogy. Only about half of noughts-to-twos in the United Kingdom are in any form of day care, and, with the majority of those having only one session a week, it would appear that hardly as much as one-fifth of the United Kingdom noughts-to-threes' time is spent in a setting. And yet currently our focus on support for noughts-to-threes relates almost exclusively to children in settings. For instance, there is a recent document from Sure Start (a programme for noughts-to-threes, as everybody knows) about providing good quality learning experiences and in many ways it is an inspirationally good document. But it makes no mention of the fact that four-fifths of the children in question are receiving their play experiences—of whatever quality—in the home; the document relates entirely to the provision of settings. That was our concern about the report itself.

  Chairman: That is a very good point. We have been educated, informed and admonished all at the same time.

Valerie Davey

  36. Could I pick up on Sure Start. I know you are involved in it. We are meeting the Minister, as you know, next week. Are there aspects of that itself where, given this iceberg mentality—which I think is a very good description of what you are describing—we should be probing? What expects to happen in the Sure Start context which would enable us to inspire the situation for the other four-fifths of these children?
  (Ms Roberts) One of the things that the research for Sure Start could do would be to really carefully identify the aspects of the Sure Start programmes that relate to this particular need and to see what we are developing across the country to meet it. Then I think the other thing that would be enormously helpful would be to recognise that we do not have any sort of structure or system at the moment in general in the country for supporting noughts-to-threes at home. I have a specific question for Margaret Hodge about that at the end, if I may.

Helen Jones

  37. Could I follow up on that. I think, like Valerie, what you are saying is very interesting, and particularly interesting to someone like me who has very deprived areas that do not have Sure Start projects because it is still in its very early stages. How in your view could we use those Sure Start projects that we do have to spread good practice across a much wider area and to make contact with those people that you talk about, the under part of the iceberg, the nought-to-threes who are largely at home with their parents?
  (Ms Roberts) That really relates to my question to Margaret Hodge, which is: In order to address this issue, would she consider introducing a modest grant programme per child for all babies, ones, and twos (which would incorporate your catchment) in the United Kingdom, regulated by the proposed framework that is suggested in the Response to that Report. If that were to happen, the framework itself would have to be really carefully developed. I would suggest we do that by the same sort of process that we used to develop the Sure Start programme in the first place, that very wide consultation and very careful gathering up of the best research and evidence we have about what makes a difference. That would be my proposal because I think that would ensure that all the important and innovative Early Years initiatives that she has instigated, particularly the Sure Start programmes and, indeed, Early Excellence Centres, would be sustained and disseminated in a cost-effective way for the benefit of every child. If we have a modest grant programme—like we had one for threes and fours although clearly this would not require anything like that sort of investment, but if there were a grant programme—it would generate a need for ways to deliver this sort of support, and that of itself would generate an enormous amount of really important work. It would make such a difference.

  38. That is a very interesting suggestion. Could I just ask you a follow-up question on that: How would you envisage that support being delivered? How would you break down the barriers which undoubtedly exist, particularly in poorer areas, between people who are seen as professionals in the field and those parents who most need support?
  (Ms Roberts) I would not want to answer that question off the top off my head, but I think that is an important point, and that is why I urge that if such a thing were set up the framework would need to address those questions. But they need addressing very carefully.

Charlotte Atkins

  39. I am interested in the comments you have made about Sure Start because I have just had one in my area, a poor rural area. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your experience of how Sure Start has managed to get parents—because I think that is the crucial aspect of Sure Start—and what lessons you have learned from your own experience in terms of making that contact. We are talking about between 400 and 600 children, so we are talking about a number of pairs of parents. Do you feel that Sure Start does get to the places that other programmes do not reach?
  (Ms Roberts) Yes, I do. But I think it is very early days. I think the focus on the need for long-term work in Sure Start is absolutely crucial. I think that where we need to start is by everyone involved in the Sure Start programme putting their heads together on this issue. I do not think any one service can really crack this on their own. The question that everybody always asks is: "What can you tell us about the families you do not reach?" Well, by definition, it is very difficult to answer that. The advantage of the Sure Start programme is that it does have the resource to know all the babies and the young children in an area and to collaborate, not in an intrusive way but in a supportive way, about finding out what the needs of those families are and how one can go about involving them. I think one of the things that is urgently needed in the way of support from the unit is something to do with the database arrangements for Sure Start programmes—and there is an issue about data protection there which is very problematic. I think, until we do some more work on that, it is going to be difficult really to be systematic about who all the families are, not being intrusive, being supportive, and doing a really good job with everybody.

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