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Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con):
I recently visited Bracknell Forest borough council educational services; we toured one or two of the schools. I agree with the hon. Lady: it seems that budgets are already under
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pressure. The authority is attempting to do an excellent job for children, both able-bodied and disabled. Will she urge the Minister to look at the funding requirements behind some of the new duties in the Bill to ensure that there is not undue pressure on the authorities when it comes to child care?
Mrs. Humble: Everybody present is taking part in this debate because we all care about these children and their needs. There are issues about the availability of child care places in some areas, especially in relation to child protection. However, I can see the opportunities presented by the Bill and by other legislation. There will be opportunities through the development of children's trusts to integrate services much more coherently, which I hope will help the development of exactly that sort of cross-working. Sometimes, when social services departments intervene to protect children, the families involved are exactly those for whom the local authority wants to provide child care support. So, there needs to be working across local authority departments. I see the framework of children's trusts as an opportunity to do that as well as to involve other agencies, such as the health service, which are vital.
Will my right hon. Friend monitor what resources are available? I repeat that I recognise how much money is being put in, especially to develop children's centres. That is very welcome. I visited Kincraig primary school in Blackpool last Friday, where I talked to people who are very much looking forward to having a children's centre.
The third area that I identified was parental involvement. It will be vital to the success of the Bill to involve parents in the development of provision. In spite of the information that is available, parents still come to me because they do not know what services they can access. The requirement on local authorities to seek out parents to tell them what services are available is welcome, but it is equally important that those parents are part of the development of services. For example, parents of children with disabilities should be included in considering how services can be improved and developed. Parents from black and minority ethnic groups should be involved. We must ensure that services are culturally appropriate and that such parents do not feel excluded. Parents in Fleetwood were involved in the development of the Sure Start project from the outset. Before a suitable building was identified and opened, the local managers talked to them about the services that they wanted. As a result, parents feel ownership of those servicesthey welcome them and engage with the delivery of direct child care provision and all the other support that is offered to them.
Finally, I welcome the new quality and regulatory framework. My reading of clause 41 is that developmental requirements are on a par with learning requirements. However, that is a false dichotomy. The Bill creates a welcome single framework for early years education and child care instead of dealing with education on the one hand and social care and health development on the other. The two are inextricably linkedchildren learn through play and by observing others. Children are now examined for their developmental progress. Health visitors used to visit me to make sure that my children had reached developmental milestones as babies, so such provision is
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not new. As the framework is developed, however, it is important that parents understand it. Sadly, parents who read the headlines in the media may think that their six-month-old will be propped up, a book placed in front of them and a pen put in their hand. [Interruption.] I admit that I read to my children when they were little, because it is good practice to teach children from a young age to follow the reading movement from left to right so that when they learn to read they can follow sentences from left to right and identify pictures. I remember teaching my children colours and shapes and playing with them as part of the educational process. We should reassure parents that the foundation stagethe new frameworkencourages them to do all that with their children. We should explain that if they place their child in a child care setting, whether with a child minder or in a nursery and so on, the trained staff will do the same.
John Bercow: I am listening with great interest and respect to the hon. Lady, who clearly knows a great deal about the subject. The important point, surely, is the need for common sense and flexibility. My wife and I have two young sonsone will be two next month and the other will be three weeks old tomorrow. We are not worried about the age at which Oliver and Freddie will speak, because I did not speak until I was two and a half, but I have comprehensively made up for it in the subsequent 40 years.
Mrs. Humble: I could not possibly comment on the latter point, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman on the former. Clearly, common sense is needed, as children develop at different rates. The Bill, in fact, says that that is the case. Within the context of children developing differently, may I emphasise the special needs of children with a disability? The outcomes for them in the framework must be linked to their own personal development.
To sum up, I warmly welcome the Bill. It is an excellent piece of legislation which will bring in much clearer standards and better joint working, not just between the statutory agencies and local authorities, but with a range of child care providers. We need to take into account what we are told by the Pre-School Learning Alliance and private nurseries. They want to be part of the provision. As the Bill is debated, there will be further discussion of the role of local authorities in liaising with existing child care providers, which have a key role. The test for the Bill will be whether it provides affordable and accessible child care services to everyone. The framework represents a move in the right direction, which I find reassuring. I look forward to further debate, but above all, I look forward to the Bill being implemented so that child care is improved and becomes more accessible, so that parents and children can benefit from it.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD):
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), whose constituency title is almost as complicated as mine. She has brought great experience and knowledge to the debate.
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On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I welcome the Bill. Given that much of our long-term policy work and commitment relating to early years provision is compatible with the 10-year child care strategy, it would be churlish not to express that general support. However, that does not mean that the Bill has our wholehearted support in its present form. There are a number of issues that I shall raise, and a great deal of detail will have to be addressed in Committee.
Like the Secretary of State, I believe it is worth reflecting on what has been achieved since 1997. I was a chair of education pre and post-1997, and I would be the first to acknowledge the extremely low base from which the Government started and the enormous progress that has been made from 1997 onwards. The creation of early years development and child care partnerships in local authorities, a free nursery education place for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want one, Sure Start, early excellence centres, neighbourhood nurseries and so on, and now children's centres are to be extended to an additional 300,000 pre-school children across 136 local authorities, plus the extended school programme. However, issues have inevitably arisen, and given the sums of money being invested, it is right that clear evaluation and monitoring take place.
I understand that in 200405, total public spending on child care was around £5 billion, and I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that we need value for money from such sums. The National Audit Office reported in 2004:
Earlier this year I recall the same confusion as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead surrounding the outcomes of Sure Start. I appreciate that evaluation is continuous at a local and national level, and given the wide local variations in schemes and the length of time that it would take nationally to get a true picture, it is important not to jump to hasty conclusions, but feedback is needed. I join the right hon. Lady in calling for some indication of when an evaluation will be published. I note that the national evaluation runs from 2001 to 2008, and is predicted to cost more than £20 million.
Issues have arisen relating to the quality of provision throughout the period that I referred tofor example, the "Panorama" programme which showed some worrying tendencies in terms of quality in some settings. Will the roll-out programme of children's centres, with the provision and level of non-ring-fenced resources to local authorities, mean a watering-down of the original concept and practice of Sure Start?
In 2004, according to the Social Market Foundation report on life chances and early years, 26 per cent. of families reported unmet demand for child care, with
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lone parents, parents in deprived areas and parents of children with special needs affected most severely. Those conclusions seem to underpin the need for the type of proposals that we are discussing, especially as I assume that 26 per cent. must be an understatement of what the demand would have been if parents had access to more information on availability, affordability and so on.
Further underpinning for the Bill's strategy comes from the EPPEeffective provision of pre-school educationproject, published last year, which found that pre-school children with three years' quality pre-school provision who started in nursery at two or younger were up to a year ahead of their contemporaries in educational attainment when they started school. Notwithstanding that report, it is important to consider other evidence that might lead to different conclusions.
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