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Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): In a previous life, I visited a large number of Sure Start projects; for example, the Newcastle centre which is second to none. It cannot be beaten and gives an excellent service. However, other Sure Start projects barely qualify for their existence in terms of the provision they offer both parents and children. Does the hon. Lady agree that as we are so far away from evaluation of the Sure Start programmes we need to work towards quality standards, as projects throughout the country are so diverse?
Annette Brooke: There are strengths and weaknesses in diversity and in some ways much was learned by having different types of project. I shall talk later about quality assurance in the context of the Bill, which will be more relevant.
A number of US studies have concluded that maternal employment, particularly full-time, during the first year of a child's life is associated with poorer outcomes. On the other hand, UK evidencein a study this yearfound that only full-time, not part-time, work during the first 18 months of a child's life might have adverse consequences, but that they were minor. There were variations depending on income and education. The study also found that the quality of non-parental care is highly significant in determining outcomes. Other studies suggest that antisocial behaviour in children may stem from some of their early experiences of child care.
After a presentation at the all-party group on children, I became interested in work based on attachment theory. Sue Gerhardt, the author of "Why Love Matters", and others have studied the impact of early parenting on babies' brains and their future mental health. Given the importance of early emotional bonding, one might conclude that nursery care would be inferior to one-to-one care at home. However, I think that work shows the importance of supporting mothers, as Sure Start does, in emotional bonding with their children. It also shows why the current framework of birth-to-three programmes and their implementation matter.
More recently, there have been reports about what the families, children and child care studythe Penny Leach studywill conclude. Press reports suggested that young children looked after by their mothers until the age of three did significantly better in developmental
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tests than those cared for in nurseries or by nannies, child minders or relatives. However, Penny Leach and her team made the important statement that
"no recommendations about childcare are made by the research team and we certainly do not advocate that all children in the early years of life must be cared for full time by their mothers, nor indeed that one form of child care is always preferable to another. However, it is the view of the team that both parental choice of care and the quality of care are most important."
On the choice agenda, in an ideal worldto which we should have aspirations, such as those suggested by the Daycare Trustthere would be universal, affordable, quality child care and 12 months parental leave paid at a level that would provide all parents with the option of being able to afford to stay at home to care for their children during the first years of their life if they choose to do so; a home care allowance paid to parents who choose to stay at home to look after their child aged 12 to 24 months and much more. Those are the ideals and I hope that we have those aspirations. Next week, some progress will be made with the Work and Families Bill, but there is still a long way to go. Liberal Democrat policy on child care provision at the general election was to include a maternity income guarantee, which we managed to finance only for first-time mothers. It contained a mechanism by which the money paid over the six months came up to the minimum wage. It is important that we work towards that, because people do not really have a choice with statutory maternity pay of £102 per week. I know that there is a tremendous dilemma: whether to lengthen the period of maternity and paternity leave, or to leave it as it is and increase the amount of money paid.
When talking about child care and early years services, commentators tend to mention the experience of Sweden and Denmark. Increasingly, the recent progress of New Zealand in investing successfully in high-quality child care is also mentioned. The Nordic states have all achieved or are close to achieving two of the United Kingdom's main policy goalsnear eradication of child poverty and universal early childhood servicesand high levels of gender equality and women's empowerment.
On funding levels, Sweden and Denmark currently spend around 2 to 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product on early education and care, excluding parental leave payments. Even with the massive investment that this Government have made, which I welcome, that still accounts for just 0.43 per cent. of GDP, so we have a long way to go. The Nordic systems, to which we might aspire, have developed a truly integrated early childhood service.
The proposals in the Bill are largely welcome, long overdue, and have the potential to offer many benefits to a lot of children and families. We must, however, keep the bigger vision in mind, despite the challenge inherent in trying to increase significantly the share of GDP spent on early years provision in future decades. Even with the current proposals, many Opposition Members are concerned about whether there will be sufficient funding to deliver the Bill's goals. Inevitably, as I comment on its specific proposals, I will have to question the cost-
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neutrality assumptions. I want the Bill to make a difference but, without sufficient funding, what true progress will be made in plugging some of the most important gaps?
The requirement to place a duty on local authorities to improve the well-being of young children and to reduce inequalities between young children in their area, referring to the five well-being outcomes specified in the Children Act 2004, must be warmly welcomed in principle. I hope that we will be able to address the outcomes on looked-after children within that structure, but what will that mean in practice and how will it work effectively? On what basis will targets be set? What definitions will be used? How will monitoring take place? That requirement, in common with many in the Bill, is left to future regulations. It would be helpful if such draft regulations were made available for the Committee stage.
A number of organisations have flagged up the concerns that were expressed by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead about partnership working between local authorities, private and voluntary providers and schools. I wonder whether the Minister will issue guidance in that respect, as there seem to be genuine concerns that existing providers may be pushed out of the market with an expansion of child care within a children's centre or on a school site. It is important that the best solution for a local area is pursued. I do not prejudge what the right or the wrong decision will be, but we need to be assured that, across the country, local authorities are consistently working in partnership.
As we have heard, the Bill requires local authorities to secure sufficient child care to meet the needs of working parents and of those in education or training. Achieving sufficiency is defined as, first, securing child care provision that is eligible for the child care element of the working tax credit and, secondly, providing child care that is suitable for disabled children. In other words, in the Bill the duty to secure child care is closely linked to parents working.
As other hon. Members have said, however, there will be parents who decide to stay at home with their children during the early years and they may still need to access some child care. For example, a parent may want to work part-timeI refer to the evidence that I cited earlieror to access part-time education. I would be interested to know whether the Minister for Children and Families is considering such situations and how parents can access particular sessions of child care. There is a tension in that respect, because it is quite hard for providers to provide sessions that do not run right through the week, but such flexibility can contribute a great deal to family life.
Having a break from child-caring responsibilities can improve parents' mental health, as we have heard. [Laughter.] The mother may be suffering from post-natal depression, which I do not think is funny. There will be other situations in which parents cannot work. I appreciate that social services may give support under the Children Act 1989, but given the constraints on social services, will that funding be sufficient? About 1.2 million children live in workless families and, like other hon. Members, I am not clear on where funding will come from when people really need support.
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I am particularly concerned about disabled children and I am worried that their families will lose out. Much is promised, but will it be delivered? Children with disabilities and their families face particular challenges, and those parents often have a need for child care beyond the need to work. For example, they may need child care to be able to spend time with their other children or to attend appointments about health and education provision for their children.
The National Autistic Society's research shows that accessing critical services and entitlements during the early years is a key stressor impacting on the family life of a child with an autistic spectrum disorder. Securing provision of suitable child care should enhance the well-being of families in itself, regardless of work. For that reason, child care is a cost-effective intervention: providing services for children with disabilities such as ASD helps to prevent families from reaching crisis point, thus preventing reliance on costly residential placements.
Child care provision for children with disabilities is woefully inadequate in many areas. I am very pleased that the Government are seeking to address that issue in the Bill. However, in addition to the points that I have already made, the quality and affordability of the provision required for disabled children should be considered. Will the provision of care for children with disabilities outside the main school day be included? I am also thinking of holidays and respite care.
A mother of a severely disabled child came to my surgery the other week. Across Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole, a survey is being conducted on the provision of respite care at weekends or for whole weeks to allow the rest of the family to go away. A local authority employee told my constituent, "There is only so much money available. If we extend provision at a certain special needs school, that may well mean cuts in the overall respite budget." That was obviously very alarming for my constituent, but I have to point out that there are councils, which are starting from a relatively low base and are rather poorly funded, that may be giving with one hand and taking away with the other.
The concept of sufficiency generally should include other difficult-to-reach groups, such as ethnic minorities, and the issue of quality as well as quantity. However, as soon as we start talking about quality issues, we come to the tensions between quality and affordability. I do not know the answer to that; I suppose that the Minister has to supply the answers. First with regard to quality, I place it firmly on the record that I do not think that it is mad or ridiculous to propose an early years foundation stage. The principle of a coherent framework that provides quality and consistency across settings is in the interests of children and practitioners. Indeed, I have heard several practitioners say that they would like the present foundation stage to be extended to seven-year-olds, as it is so firmly based on skills rather than on prescribed content.
The details of the new proposals and their implementation are important. It is vital that children in their early years are given the freedom to learn through enjoyment, exploration and play, and allowed to investigate new skills and concepts for themselves. It is
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right that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who did not learn to speak until he was two and a half, should have been able to develop at his own pace. We need to strike a balance between teacher-orientated and child-initiated activities that are appropriate to the individual child.
That sets alarm bells ringing, and we must address that wording. There is also some concern that any proposal to extend the national literacy and numeracy frameworks down to the age of three will result in formalised learning at too young an age. It is vital that the chosen model should not be too prescriptive.
The principles underlying the early years foundation stage will be very important, as were those underlying its predecessors. There are clearly differences between the principles underlying "Birth to Three Matters" and those underlying the foundation stage. For example, the former include the principle that
It will be important to arrive at a joint set of principles across this wide developmental range, so that we get this right. Both sets of principles cover the importance of working with parents. I know that preliminary consultation is being carried out on the new proposals, and I would like to emphasise that getting the underlying principles right will form the fundamental starting point.
In a second point on quality, research shows that who provides the early years education is vital in determining its quality and impact. The EPPE project found that, in socially diverse settings, the quality of practitioners' knowledge and understanding of the curriculum and pedagogy was vital. Some years ago, the Liberal Democrats proposed a new qualificationthat of the qualified early years teacher. It would be a graduate qualification covering the three strands of early provision: health, education and social services. The long-awaited children's work force strategy was published earlier this year, and the 10-year strategy set welcome long-term goals for increasing the number of workers trained to degree level and for degree-qualified early years staff to lead all full-time day care settings.
Given the clear evidence that positive child development depends on services being of high quality, and that a well qualified work force is the biggest determinant of quality, I am worried that only half of Britain's 100,000 nursery workers have a child care qualification. The average gross salary of a child care worker is £7,800 a year, compared with £22,662 for a graduate trained nursery or primary school teacher. The £125 million a year transformation fund announced in the 10-year strategy to support investment by local authorities in high quality, affordable, flexible and sustainable child care provision is inadequate for a radical review of the sector. Although it shows an unprecedented commitment to investing in the work force, it equates to approximately £500 per member of
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the work force, which is not enough to raise salaries, invest in training or increase staff numbers. Changes need to take place over time, but it is my duty to point this out today. I acknowledge that commitments are being made, but there is still such a lot to do.
We need investment in continuous professional development. We really do need to develop a professional work force who are esteemed by the public, and in whom the public have great confidence. The tension between quality and affordability could not be greater. The Government face major challenges, given the investment that is required and the knock-on effects on the cost of child care.
The third strand of quality is registration and inspection. We welcome the Government's commitment to retaining regulation for those who care for any children under the age of eight, but I agree with some of the organisations that have expressed concern about the regulation of crèches. Let me give another constituency example. At a major facility in Poole town centre, one of my constituents had a very unfortunate experience involving a three-year-old who was not being cared for properly. Ofsted was called in, and found that regulations were not being observed. I understand from a reply given by the Minister at the time that Ofsted wanted the facility to change and to take its recommendations on board, but it had the option of offering less than two hours' provision.
Here is another of those famous tensions. The Government do not want to overregulatenone of us want to do thatbut my constituent called on me to try to secure more regulations. What I consider important is for parents to be given information about crèches. Even a notice on the wall stating that a crèche is not subject to regulation would be helpful. Anyone would surely assume that a major facility in a town centre was regulated, and that all the staff had been checked. Could that information be added to the bank of information already available to parents?
I also share the concerns raised about the different registers, which may prove complex in practice and difficult for parents to understand. The Bill states that the Secretary of State "may by order provide" exemptions from the requirement to register in certain circumstances. That will require a great deal of clarification in Committee.
I have heard reports of concern about the quality and consistency of inspections of early-years facilities. I hope that as we move into a new phase, we will pay attention to the qualifications required of inspectorsthe training that is required, and the processes involved in inspections. Will early-years provision at independent schools be subject to the same processes? I am pleased to learn that the same framework will apply.
We must not underestimate the importance of self-evaluation to the process of improving quality, and to the formulation of what we hope will be rare inspections. I am sure that many Members have, like me, presented quality assurance certificates in various pre-school settings. I am always proud to do that, and am always amazed that the leaders of playgroups and nurseries have time to do all the work that is needed to earn the certificates. Such processes are very important.
There seems to be some uncertaintyalthough perhaps not on the Minister's partabout the future of Investors in Children. I know that there are many
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different forms of quality assuranceI think that there are more than 70but there should be a recognised kite mark which parents can understand. That was mentioned in the Government's consultation, but we do not seem to have been told what will replace Investors in Children if its funding is cut. When an inspection takes place in a school that covers early years, is an early years specialist always part of the inspection team? That would fit in with this agenda.
We are told that the local authority must assess the market and parental needs. What are the milestones, however, to show what is reasonably practicable and what local authorities must do? There are bound to be councils in which it is very difficult to ensure that child care is available to fit every circumstance. Variations between the provision of councils such as Islington and Poole mean that their starting points will be very different. Will some families be disappointed? Is a parental guarantee being offered or simply an expectation? What is practicable in relation to children with disabilities and severe disabilities?
It will be difficult to go out and find low-income and ethnic minority families and make them aware of and interested in all the choices. In 2002, only 3 per cent. of parents had contact with their local children's information servicethat figure is from a Department for Education and Skills study. I applaud the aim of developing children's information services further, but again, councils will start from different bases, and outreach work will be required.
Can the aspirations be delivered within existing funding? If the funding is based on the child care element of tax credits, we still have the dilemma about workless families. In that regard, we must think of what is best for the child. There is a continual dilemma relating to supply-side and demand-side funding, and the advantages and disadvantages on either side, and it would be interesting to hear about the pilot projects being carried out in London.
In relation to the part of my constituency other than Poole, what is reasonable and practicable in very rural areas? It is important not to set up local authorities to fail, and equally important not to enable them to get away with doing the minimum. We need to know what "reasonably practicable" means.
We have had one interesting representation on listening to children, about which we all agree. It related to listening to very young children, along with parents and providers. That work has produced some interesting results, which we might explore in Committee.
Child-centred as the Bill is, family support is so important. For families with difficulties, universal family support is needed. It is obviously very costly to provide multi-disciplinary support, work, housing, child care, literacy and training, but there are great benefits in the longer term. If the Government are serious about preventive action rather than cure, they need to examine family support much more.
How many more parents will access child care as a result of this Bill? Without additional money, will a single child get more care, or will a single parent who is
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struggling with affordability no longer have to struggle? Will the Bill be a false dawn? I sincerely hope not. We will work with the Government in Committee to address our great concerns about certain aspects of the Bill, although we applaud its principles.
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